It’s the week of Halloween, so what better time to talk about the whale with the scariest name? Killer whales, also known as orcas, might look kind of cuddly, with their rounded heads and panda-like coloring, but they’re top predators, as their name suggests. Killer whales are technically the largest member of the dolphin family (all dolphins are a small subset of the whale family, but not all whales are dolphins). They reach lengths of up to 26 feet, and they weigh up to six tons. And their black and white coloring helps them to hunt– being black on top and white on the bottom is an example of what’s called counter-shading. This coloration pattern helps water-dwelling animals hide– when seen from above, their dark backs blend in with the dark ocean floor, and when looked at from below, their white bellies blend in with the sunlight streaming down into the water. Penguins have this kind of shading too. In killer whales, it helps them to sneak up on their prey, which includes fish, seals, and dolphins. They’re sometimes called the wolves of the sea, because they hunt in packs just like wolves do!
Photo by Robert Pittman, NOAA