Biology and Strategy: The Killer Whale

Killer whales, or orcas, exemplify the adaptive strategy of experimenting, selecting, and adopting new practices in response to changing environmental conditions.

Historically, orca populations and even individual hunting packs developed specialized feeding patterns and grounds to avoid competition for food sources. Sometimes they would stay on the same turf for their entire 90-year life span. Think of it as classical territory management. Recently, however, climate change has altered prey distributions dramatically, all but extinguishing some prey species.

In response, killer whales have adapted in two ways. First, they now hunt different prey, adapting entirely different hunting techniques to respond to new prey sizes, like sea otters, instead of the larger marine mammals, like seals, and schools of fish that they traditionally hunted for. Second, they hunt in different locations, experimenting and changing their natural habitat by hundreds of miles. Like an adaptive company, an adaptive killer whale wins by changing what, how, and where it hunts in response to shifts in the environment.

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