The Orca

Commonly referred to as the ‘killer whale’, the orca (Orcinus orca) is a fearsome but misunderstood creature. I’m not a huge fan of the term ‘killer whale’, so I will only be using ‘orca’ in the rest of this post. The orca is a toothed mammal which actually belongs to the dolphin family and not the whale family. They are the largest species of dolphin, reaching up to 10 metres (33ft) in length – around the same length as your average bus.

Orca.jpg
Orcas have a large dorsal fin which pokes out of the water.

Boldly marked, these marine mammals are easily recognisable. They have a black and white colouring, with a distinctive white patch just above each of their eyes. In addition, they have a tall dorsal fin, up to 1.8 metres tall, which can be used to identify individuals. Orcas are one of the world’s most widely distributed species (besides humans); they can be found in all of our oceans and nearly all seas – exceptions being the Baltic and Black sea. Their vast distribution is a testament to the orca’s fantastic adaptability.

Orcas are at the top of the marine food chain – making them apex predators. They feed on fish, seals, sea lions, sharks and even other cetaceans (dolphins, whales and porpoises). However, their diet varies from location to location, as different populations have specialised to hunt certain prey.

Orca 2.jpg
Orcas live in large, sociable pods.

Known as the wolves of the sea, orcas have a developed a cunning and effective hunting strategy. They hunt in pods, some pods can contain up to 40 individuals. These pods are able to wipe out whole schools of herring, huge elephant seals, great white sharks and even sperm whales. Orcas will use echolocation to communicate and hunt, making sounds travel underwater until they encounter an object, then these sound waves will bounce back, revealing the object’s location, size and shape. When these mammals work together they make a formidable force.

However, orcas are not just excellent predators; they also have a caring, sociable and empathetic side. Adolescent females often assist mothers in looking after their young and each pod makes distinctive noises to greet and communicate with each other. Moreover, orcas are highly intelligent. They live in complex societies and can be very playful – both with other orcas and humans. In fact, they are such an intelligent and complex species that there are growing concerns about keeping orcas in captivity, especially just for human entertainment.

Orca 3.jpg
What a stunning photo.

 

Sources:

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/mammals/o/orca/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Killer_whale

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yj02rnByXBM

Hennessy, K., Wiggins, V. (2014) Animal Encyclopedia: The Definitive Visual Guide. 2nd edn. London. Dorling Kindersley.

The Tiger

Unbelievably powerful and expertly agile, the tiger (Panthera tigrisis the largest member of the cat family and the focus of tonight’s final episode of Dynasties. They occupy a vast but fragmented range from the dense jungles of Indonesia all the way up to the snowy expanses of Siberia – demonstrating their excellent adaptability in a plethora of different habitats and ecosystems. The largest individuals are found in Siberia, where the males can reach up to 300kg, yet still possess the power to jump as high as 10 metres – over five times the height of an average person.

Tiger

Tigers are magnificent hunters, consuming a diet of mainly hoofed animals such as Sambar deer, wild boar and water buffalo, although this diet will vary considerably depending on their habitat. The most striking feature of the tiger is their fiery orange coat marked with charcoal-black stripes. This beautiful fur pattern provides superb camouflage in the autumnal-toned vegetation. Their tail, which is also striped, helps tigers maintain balance when chasing after prey or climbing rocky tracts.

The tiger is the national animal of Bangladesh, India, Malaysia, Myanmar, South Korea and Vietnam, but these mammals are not being given the respect they deserve. Fewer than 4,000 tigers remain in the wild, spread out over six subspecies, with the South China tiger being most at threat (most likely extinct in the wild). Nine subspecies of tiger used to roam our planet, but within the past century, the Javan, Caspian and Bali tiger have all become extinct – forever gone because of human’s actions.

Tiger 3.jpg
Tigers occupy a range of habitats from swamps to forests to snowy plains.

It is estimated that wild tiger numbers have dropped by an abhorrent 95% since the beginning of the 20th century and now all six extant subspecies are considered either endangered (the Bengal, Siberian and Indo-Chinese tigers) or critically endangered (the Malayan, South China and Sumatran tigers). The cause of their suffering is due to human conflict; habitat loss and fragmentation; and poaching. Unfortunately, tigers live in some of the most densely populated places on earth so conflict with humans is almost inevitable in our ever-increasing crowded world. Tiger parts are also used in the fruitless and detrimental practice of traditional Chinese medicine.

Tiger 4.jpg
A mother and her cubs enjoying a leisurely swim.

Thankfully, conservation organisations such as the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) are working closely with governments to resolve human-tiger conflicts and establish larger national parks where these tigers can hopefully live in relative peace – tigers are extremely territorial are require up to 450 kilometres squared each, so large habitats are essential. However, tigers are far from safe and their conflict with humans will only worsen unless drastic action is immediately taken. These majestic cats play such a vital ecological and cultural role in Asia that their extinction would be shamefully inexcusable.

The Narwhal

A rather strange looking mammal, the narwhal (Monodon monoceros) only has two teeth, one of which grows into a twisted tusk up to 3 metres long in adult males, giving them the nickname ‘Unicorn of the Sea’. This species of whale inhabits arctic waters, often covered with ice, around Greenland, Canada and Russia where it predominantly feeds on fish, molluscs and shrimp. Due to their lack of advanced dentition, they have quite a fascinating way of catching their prey. They hastily swim towards their prey and, once in a close enough range, forcefully suck their meal into their mouth.

MM7354

Narwhals belong to the same family as Beluga whales and they are both around the same size. Excluding the length of their mighty tusks, narwhals measure between 4 and 5.5 metres in length, with the males being slightly larger than the females. They are wonderfully coloured with their mottled pigmentation; dark brown-black markings on a white canvas, conveying a method of camouflaging known as countershading which is extremely common in marine animals. Unusually for whales, the narwhal lacks a dorsal fin and this is possibly an evolutionary adaptation for life under the ice.

Narwhal 2

These tusked-whales travel in groups. Generally, these groups consist of 15-20 individuals but colossal gatherings have been recorded with hundreds or even thousands of narwhals all blissfully traversing through the arctic ocean with a common purpose. Sadly, these journeys are not always so blissful since narwhals occasionally become someone else’s meal. Polar bears will ambush their breathing holes and kill their calfs; killer whales will group together to enclose and overwhelm the pod of narwhals. But humans are also a large threat to narwhals, especially the local Inuit people who are permitted to hunt the whales for their meat and tusks.

However, in the future they will likely face far larger threats and far more misfortune due to climate change as their arctic habitat grows smaller and smaller unless we adopt and sustain an environmentally-friendly way of life.