27 July 2007

Guided Mis-Information

I was hiking at a local national park the other day. I had to hike past some groups of people bundled around the entrance trail to get to more reclusive paths. As I was passing a group I heard "There's two types of killer whales: meat eaters and vegetarians".
Wha? What?? Did I hear that right? I did. Not only that but the information was coming from a park interpretive ranger guiding the group. A park ranger who lives in a town where significant killer whale research goes on. Where he has access and has talked to biologists who study killer whales. Ack!
For those of you who don't know: There are two types of killer whales. In that the ranger was correct. Now I recently finished completing a lot of work on this orca ID Catalogue for Eastern Kamchatka, Russia. I'm not a main author but I am acknowledged and let's face it, I put in a lot of work on it. So I know a little bit about the subject. I know 500 plus Russian killer whales by name.

The two types of killer whales are the Residents & the Transients. These labels are totally mis-leading and are based on previous assumptions about orcas but somehow they've stuck. Resident Orcas are fish eating orcas and they tend to not to travel very far. Transient Orcas are mammal eaters and they have to travel farther for food. But both groups tend to be loyal to a certain territory. The interesting thing as that these two groups are distinct genetically, where ever you find orcas. That means that while the orcas here at the north pole are genetically distinct from the orcas at the south pole the fish eaters and the mammal eaters in both places are still distinct from each other. So this is not necessarily a learned behavior but an inherited one. (Can you hear it now though? Orca prejudices - daddy will never speak to you again little fish eater if you marry that mammal eater!).

I can only guess that the ranger has been exposed to the saying "I'm a vegetarian but I eat fish" too often. But come on, who is he fooling? These are predators? Have you ever taken a look at those teeth? There should be a park sign that says "Please don't feed the tourists mis-information".


  1. My five year old is really, really into orcas. He'll be delighted to know that there are some that are fish eaters. I think he's a little freaked out by the mammal eaters. I am, anyway. At any rate, they're all gorgeous.

    Thanks for your informative, interesting, well-written blog. (How's that for a list of adjectives!?)

  2. Okay, so my little GA Aquarium and all things "ocean" addict is totally into orcas. So, you're the perfect person to ask: Is this book that we have about ocean life correct in stating that orcas are related to dolphins in that dolphins are small whales? Is any of this right? I ask because my 4 year old is the one who stands in front of the tank in order to explain things to other patrons... :) (And yes, I know this is probably not "Ask the Expert" day at Wayfarer Scientista!)

  3. orangeblossoms ~ thanks for the compliments! I too find mammal eaters a little scary in an awe inspiring kind of way. The way they can launch themselves out of the water at a seal and then flip them in the air - raw power. But luckily then have almost never been recorded to go after humans.

    liv ~ I am always happy to answer questions (& I'll tell you if I haven't a clue)! Yep, dolphins & orcas are members of the same family Delphinidae (interestingly, porpoises which look more like dolphins are not). They fall into the "toothed whale" category or Order Odontoceti. The baleen whales are inorder Mysticeti.

  4. Thanks for helping me impress my 4 year old with my mad ocean animal knowledge! I think you must have the coolest job ever! :) I'll have to pick your brain about how I'll be able to pull off my dream of seeing a narwhal up close one day...

  5. Wayfarer... You know I'd believe anything you say to the end of the earth, but I have to wonder if this interp wasn't making a bad joke? I think that even the most clueless J Q Public knows that an animal called Killer eats meat.

  6. liv ~ hmmm...that narwhal one is a tough one!

    froghair ~ Well, an intern of mine was in the group and attempted to correct him - he was very resistant to it apparently. And he called them orcas - maybe he didn't know that orcas=killer whales? *shrug


Please leave your messages here...I am always delighted to have comments!