Are Orcas And Killer Whales The Same?

are orcas and killer whales the same

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Orcas and killer whales are two terms that are regularly used simultaneously to refer to the same marine mammal.

However, there’s regular confusion around whether these two names are truly synonymous, with some people arguing that orcas and killer whales are two distinct species.

Today, we’ll explore everything you need to know about the age-old question. Are orcas and killer whales the same?

In essence, YES, orcas and killer whales are the same. Orcas were given this name many years ago after displaying some truly remarkable behavior.

Let’s take a closer look…

Are Orcas And Killer Whales The Same?

Yes, orcas and killer whales are the same. Orcas are a species of toothed whale and their scientific name is Orcinus Orca.

Orcas were given the name “killer whale” by ancient sailors after observing groups of hunting orcas preying on much larger whales.

These animals are top apex predators that are capable of taking down even the largest animal to have ever lived on earth, the blue whale.

are orcas and killer whales the same
Image by Alexandre Roux

The earliest known record of the name “killer whale” comes from a Spanish document written in 1565 which referred to the animal as “asesina de ballenas,” meaning “whale killer.”

Over time, this name transitioned into “killer whale” and quickly became the most commonly used name for orcas in English-speaking countries.

It makes sense, as orcas regularly kill whales, but their true scientific name is Orcinus Orca or Orca for short.

What Is The Difference Between An Orca And A Killer Whale?

Contrary to some beliefs, there is no difference between orcas and killer whales, they are two different names for the same animal.

Orca is their correct name, whilst killer whale is a sort of nickname that was given to the animals after observing their hunting behavior many years ago.

It is important to note that there are different types of orcas, which have different characteristics, behaviors, and diets.

There are resident orcas, transient orcas, offshore orcas, Antarctic orcas, and type D orcas that all have different behaviors and appearances.

Some of these ecotypes may feed more on fish and squid, whilst others work together and take down larger prey such as dolphins and whales.

Many have different physical markings too which allows scientists to quickly distinguish between different orca groups and populations.

For example, resident orca populations have more rounded dorsal fins and an open saddle patch, whereas transient/Biggs have relatively straight dorsal fins and closed saddle patches.

These are minute differences but once made aware of the differences, it becomes easy to tell orca populations apart.

Are Orcas Actually Whales?

Despite their nickname “killer whale”, orcas are NOT actually whales and are instead the largest members of the dolphin family.

They’re often referred to as whales because of their nickname, and whilst they belong to the suborder of ‘toothed whales’ they are not technically part of the whale family.

Due to the orca’s enormous size, they are regularly referred to as whales, with adult males reaching up to 30 feet in length and weighing up to 16,000 pounds it’s no surprise many believe they are whales.

Orcas are also found in all seven oceans around the world and inhabit many of the waters in which whales do, so it’s easy to confuse them as whales too.

More On The Orcas Nickname’

Orcas were given the name killer whales by ancient sailors many years ago due to their remarkable hunting techniques and ability to take down prey much larger than themselves.

They have over 140 different prey species that they actively hunt, including dolphins, whales, sharks (including the great white), stingrays, octopuses, and much more.

Killer whales are not fussy eaters and will adapt their diet based on prey availability, in fact, they’ve even been known to prey on moose when prey is thin.

Despite their menacing nickname and appearance, orcas are not a threat to humans and have never been responsible for a single human death in the wild.

are orcas and killer whales the same
Image by Bong Grit

These are highly intelligent animals that are thought to be as smart as a 16-year-old human, and they’re aware that we are off the menu.

Their name is a bit of a misnomer as it implies they are stone-cold killers and dangerous to humans, but they are not.

Orcas are not the ruthless killers they can appear to be, and are generally inquisitive and friendly toward humans in the wild.

Humans have even been known to swim with orcas in the wild, and whilst these are generally rare encounters they are relatively safe.

Wrapping Up

In summary, orcas and killer whales are the same animals, they are just two different names that refer to the orca.

Killer whales is a name that was given to orcas by ancient sailors after observations of groups of orcas preying on whales much larger than themselves.

Whilst killer whale is a fitting description for orcas, it’s important to note that these animals are not a threat to humans.

Thanks for taking the time to read this post and learn more about why orcas are called killer whales.

Catch you in the next one!