Orca Moms Are Eternally Devoted to Adult Sons, Experts Learn


| LAST UPDATE 02/13/2023

By Stanley Wickens
orca mothers sons food chain
Mike Korostelev via Getty Images

A new study found that killer whale moms make strategic investments for the future. By feeding their sons but not daughters, these whales can look forward to enjoying greater grandmotherly glory in due time. Here's a closer look.

Off the Pacific Coast of North America, an eccentric population of killer whales is defying traditional laws - mothering doesn't end when their children reach adulthood. In fact, this special treatment follows mama's boys throughout their whole lives and into old age; female orcas in this area continue to treat their grown sons like little boys and spoil them with mom-caught fish! Conversely, daughters who have become mothers don't receive the same special treatment; while they often feed their own calves, they don't get such generous bonuses from momma-whale.

orca feed sons relationship
Gerard Soury via Getty Images
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After analyzing decades worth of research, scientists have discovered the parent-sacrificing lengths orca mothers go to in order to provide their sons with a lifetime of food. Moms face an almost 50% reduction in yearly calf survival rates after having a son, according to behavioral ecologist Michael Weiss of the Center for Whale Research in Friday Harbor, Wash. For the moms, “it’s a huge, huge cost that they’re taking on,” Weiss says. It “emphasizes kind of the uniqueness and the intensity of this mother-son bond in killer whales.” The finding, he reveals, is “our first kind of direct evidence of any animal showing lifetime parental investment.

Orcas have a fascinating way of delivering dinner - it's like the world's most intricate game of catch! When mom catches a fish, she does an impressive head jerk; one half stays in her mouth while the other trails behind. Her son grabs that trailing side for himself without ever snatching from his mother's beak. It appears to be almost companionable as they float together at the surface and share this delicious meal! When it comes to killer whale parenting, researchers are still scratching their heads trying to figure out if mamas from other species offer an extended menu for adult offspring - a real whale of a question! Stay tuned to find out more about remarkable discoveries from the animal world. 

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