Orca Network Celebrates Orca Month
Governor Jay Inslee has declared June, 2015 the ninth annual Orca Awareness Month
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Let's look into those calls we sometimes hear on the Orcasound hydrophones. Usually most of the calls we hear are the dozen or so "stereotyped" calls that seem to serve as identifiers, to alert the others of one's presence, location, direction of travel, and probably a wealth of other information in the subtle qualities of the calls.
Along with the recognizable calls today were a variety of unusual calls, or variations on calls, that may not have been previously recorded and analyzed. This wide array of sounds, known as "abberant" calls, often come out when the orcas are socializing, especially when mixed pods or matrilines are mingling or traveling together. Researchers have virtually no idea what any of the calls mean, but they are discrete calls, often repeated, that must mean something to the whales making and hearing them.
But the calls probably don't mean much to other types of orcas. Though they must hear each other often, Bigg's/Transient calls probably don't mean much to So. Residents, and vice versa. With one exception - an apparently universal call that has been called an "excitement" call - each population uses its own complete set of calls. No. and So. Residents also have completely separate vocabularies.
No other species of wildlife is known to use such elaborate, but completely separate, communication systems, but there is very little discussion in the scientific literature of the potential uses or meanings of these calls, except as indications that orcas are members of traditional cultures. It seems that some calls change over the years, and some don't.
But if these calls carry meanings that are shared only among members of the community, then the calls are meaningful symbols used to communicate. Whether we're comfortable saying so or not, the orcas that pass by Lime Kiln lighthouse today are using symbol systems, otherwise known as language.
Among the sciences known as the Humanities, there is a well-established scientific discipline devoted to the study of how symbols are used to communicate. It's called symbolic interactionism, but the scientists studying symbolic interaction don't seem to be aware of the use of symbols by orcas, and those who study orca communications don't seem to be aware of symbolic interactionism. Like Transients and Residents, the two sciences don't communicate with each other.
This Orca Month tidbit looks back, way back, to when orcas first appeared on Planet Ocean. Long before there were orcas, the first ancient whales came from four-footed, grazing mammals that waded into a warm, shallow ocean called Tethys around 55 million years ago. Food in the Tethys Sea must have been plentiful and predators few, so they mastered the challenges of swimming, breathing, and eventually giving birth at sea.
Gradually they shed their hairy coats, their nostrils moved to the tops of their heads, their forelegs became flippers and their hind legs slowly disappeared (almost), and they became whales.
A wide variety of these strange ancient whales swam the world's oceans until about 35 million years ago when they died off or morphed into something more like the whales we see today, including both baleen and toothed whales. The earliest forms of dolphins (there were many) showed up a little over 25 million years ago. For about ten million years their brains grew ever larger, until around 15 million years ago when they reached the cranial capacity found in dolphins today, which is about the same as in humans, or slightly larger in some cases.
With one exception: orcas. There's no clear, step-by-step fossil record to tell us exactly when Orcinus orca first appeared in their present form and size, including brain size, but at some point between 8 and 12 million years ago orcas must have looked pretty much like the ones plying the world's oceans today.
This means that orcas with very large-brains (4-5 times the size of human brains) have populated Planet Ocean for roughly ten million years. For reference, human evolutionary history goes back about one million years. And in all those ten or so million years, orcas were the undisputed biggest dogs in the seas. Orcas have had no known predators for millions of years. They are so big, so fast, so smart, and so cooperative, that nothing can touch them, and they are capable of eating anything.
Extrapolating from the dozens of distinct, tradition-bound orca cultures now known worldwide (a topic for another day), each with its own language, diet, social systems, etc., we can safely presume that for much of the past ten or so million years orca communities have devised ways to live as complex, cohesive societies, without depleting their ecological foundations or battling other orca cultures to extinction. Not bad for a grass eater that learned how to swim.