Toothed cetacean species in general often show flexibility in behavior and social structure depending on ecological circumstances. These differences are significant enough that they have been referred to as culture (Rendell and Whitehead 2001).
However, despite cultural differences among populations of orcas, certain elements of social structure and social interactions remain constant; for example, when offspring disperse from their mothers, at the earliest they do so as juveniles (generally considered between 5-10 years of age for females and 5-15 years of age for males; see Ford 2009) and sometimes not until they are adults (Baird and Whitehead 2000). In numerous orca populations, offspring remain with their mothers into adulthood and in several populations, most notably the northeastern Pacific residents, scientists have been observing the whales long enough to determine that both daughters and sons remain with their mothers for life (Ford 2009).
SeaWorld’s statement – “Killer whales, like most animals seem to adapt fairly quickly, if not immediately, to the loss of an animal in their group including parents” [sic] – is not accurate for orcas or for several other social mammals, such as other toothed cetaceans, elephants and many species of primates, all of which have been observed to exhibit behavior that is suggestive of grief at the loss of an offspring or parent (Bekoff 2000). In addition, in dolphins (including orcas), the death of socially important individuals in a group can result in long-term destabilization of other social bonds (Lusseau and Newman 2004; Williams and Lusseau 2006).
Malia was only 3 years of age when her mother, Taima, died in 20101. In all known free-ranging populations of orcas, offspring at 3 years of age are still socially and even nutritionally dependent on their mothers (Ford 2009). Maternal loss at this age would almost certainly be traumatic for free-ranging orca calves, regardless of population or ecotype. In addition, the loss of a prime-age reproductive female might be traumatic or destabilizing for all whales within a free-ranging orca pod.
If captive orcas do not change behavior or show any other obvious signs of distress upon the loss of family or group members, this may be because social bonds in captivity are abnormal. The group dynamics in captivity may in fact be dysfunctional. All females in captivity have minimal or no experience observing free-ranging orca mothers. Wild-caught females were captured as calves or young juveniles and therefore would have had minimal experience at observing “natural” maternal behavior. Captive-born females only observe captive mothers and are often separated from their own mothers when they are juveniles and therefore cannot observe their own mothers with their subsequent offspring.
SeaWorld has separated numerous mothers and offspring, including one at 10 months, one at 20 months and one at 24 months2. Other separations have occurred when the offspring were juveniles or adolescents (approximately 10-14 years of age for females and 15-21 years of age for males; see Ford 2009). Several former trainers have noted that mothers (such as Kasatka, whose daughter Takara was an adolescent at separation) exhibited behavior suggestive of grief (e.g., Hargrove 2015). In almost none of these cases were the separations due to medical or other needs of the offspring or mother; most were husbandry-driven separations.
SeaWorld considers “mother-calf separation” only to apply to newborns (such as Halyn, Adan, and Vicky, all of whom were separated from their mothers at birth, as their mothers rejected them1). “Mother-newborn” is not a science-based definition of mother-calf pairs in orcas. In a species such as orcas, offspring should be considered “calves” until they are at least 5-10 years of age, the earliest age of separation/dispersal observed in the wild.
“when Taima passed who became Malia’s adopted mother?”
Malia was old enough to be independent when her mother Taima passed away. At that time, Malia had already been spending a lot of time with several other members of the pod. Over the last four years, Malia has spent a good deal of time watching Katina raise her 4-year-old calf, Makaio. Today, Malia spends time with many animals in the SeaWorld Orlando pod and is quite playful in her interactions with Nalani, 8, Trua, 9, and Makaio. At 8, Malia is coming into her own and she socializes well with both of the oldest females, Katina, who is about 39, and Kayla, 26.
“How do the orcas cope when they loose their parents, such as Malia when Taima died?:( (Ps. send Malia my love)”
Killer whales, like most animals seem to adapt fairly quickly, if not immediately, to the loss of an animal in their group including parents. When Taima died, we observed nothing in Malia’s behavior that we would characterize as unusual or out of the norm. Our animal training and care staff, those of us who worked closely with Taima, felt a deep sense of loss. We’re sure many of her fans did, too. Thank you for such a great question. We’ll definitely say hi to Malia for you!
“How do you justify separating social animals like whales from their families?”
Blackfish implied that we separated Kasatka and Takara when they were mother and calf. Watch the truth: