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Marine Animal Encyclopedia

Killer Whale Orcinus orca

With its conspicuous black-and-white markings, the killer whale, or orca, is—despite its name—the largest and most striking member of the dolphin family (Delphinidae).

Apart from its bold patterning, the killer whale's most eye-catching feature is its huge dorsal fin, which is up to 6 ft (1.8 m) high in older males. It has large, paddle-shaped flippers and a massive, barrel-shaped body that tapers toward streamlined jaws, which are armed with interlocking teeth up to 2 in (5 cm) long.

Killer whales are the largest hunters of warm-blooded prey. Their diet includes fish, squid, birds, seals, and other whales. Their hunting strategy is remarkably varied: they deliberately upend ice floes to tip seals into the sea, and they even lunge onto beaches to catch seals lying near the waterline.

Intelligent, vocal, and highly sociable, killer whales live in stable groups (pods), which develop their own cultural characteristics. Despite their ferocity toward prey animals, killer whales are easily tamed in captivity and have never been known to attack humans in the wild.

Killer Whales Travel in Pods and Clans

An average killer whale pod contains 20 animals, which stay together for life, often sharing care of the young. Pods within the same geographical range make up a clan—a regional group that is thought to have a distinctive “dialect” that is passed on from adults to their young.

Killer Whalezoom image
  • Order Cetacea
  • Length 18–30 ft (5.5–9 m)
  • Weight Up to 10 tons (9 metric tons)
  • Habitat Open waters, areas of broken sea ice
  • Distribution Tropical, temperate, and polar waters worldwide
Killer Whale habitat mapzoom image