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Photo by Gary Sutton

A single male killer whale caused us to question our modern wisdom about the social ties within a population we believed we knew inside and out. His story reminded us that we will never be through with our lessons, and that we are still a few steps behind. His name is L-87, ‘Onyx’.

Born into L pod in 1992 to a mother named ‘Olympia’, Onyx had the early life of other successful young calves. He came to maturity, sporting an impressive dorsal fin that spills to a noticeably wider base than those of his pod-mates. It is important to note that male killer whales spend their entire lives near their mothers. Family appears to be sacred for this matriarchal population of whales, and mating only occurs when two (or all three) pods are together. They do not leave their pods to find mates, nor do they fight one another for dominance. It was for this reason that Onyx’s life was turned on its head – at a relatively young age, he lost his mother.

Scientists were shocked when Onyx began to defy long standing theories of what males do when their mothers pass – as this male became the first known Southern Resident Killer Whale to leave his birth pod and begin travelling with another.  He spent a while travelling with K pod, before being spotted in J pod close to one of the eldest matriarchs. In the years following he remained with this neighboring family, and eventually was known for travelling closely with Granny up until her passing in the autumn of 2016.

Photo by John Boyd

Before the story of Onyx we were certain that these killer whales would never leave their birth pod for another. We had never before seen this behavior, which we humans could only effectively

describe as ‘adoption’. Discoveries like these cause us to question everything we thought we knew about the social dynamics and cognitive abilities of animals like these whales. What is the benefit to them, if any, of taking in another whale that is not technically part of their own family? What can we learn from this development when we cast our eyes forward, and also backward upon our previous ideas? Just because this phenomenon had not been documented in this population in forty years of study does not mean that it could not have happened before, it is simply that no one was paying close enough attention. We will not be making that mistake again.

Next week we get to know Mike, a J-pod male who’s namesake made a lasting impact on the study of killer whales around the world.

Words by: Amanda Madro

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