Top Ten Wildlife Areas We Love (and Would Hate to Lose)

An orca forages in the ice floe (Digital Stock)

Why We Love It:

Killer whales, or orcas, got their name from mariners who called them "whale killers" for their huge size and hunting prowess. Orcas, however, are not whales at all: they're the world's largest dolphins. According to the National Wildlife Federation (NWF), they are the only animals besides humans, some monkeys, and the sperm whale known to have a true dialect.

Where It's Happiest:

Orcas live in social groups called "pods," matriarchal groups comprised of anywhere from two to 60 whales. While they're found all over the world, North American resident populations are split into two groups: a southern group of three pods lives off the Pacific Northwest coast, ranging from California to southern British Columbia, while a northern group inhabits the frigid waters between Vancouver Island and southeastern Alaska. Orcas eat primarily fish, but feed occasionally on seals and other marine animals. A single orca can eat up to 100 pounds of food per day.

The Cold, Hard Numbers:

Little data exists on orca populations in the northeastern Pacific prior to 1974, but scientists estimate the southern resident population topped 200 in the mid-1800s. While a total of about 1,200 whales are thought to live in the northeastern Pacific today, the number of southern residents has shrunk to 84.

Who's to Blame:

Though the International Whaling Commission bans the commercial hunting of orcas, some limited aboriginal hunting is still allowed. However, a lack of food and habitat, growing oceanic pollution, and human disturbance threaten this species more than any illegal hunting. Some scientists believe whale-watching boats and commercial ocean traffic upset migratory patterns, while others point to decreased salmon populations, a staple of the orca's diet.

When It's Gone:

Worldwide orca populations—some threatened, some not—may hold, but the extinction of the Pacific's southern population would rob West Coast residents and visitors of their best chance to see these majestic creatures in their element.

Signs of Life:

Taxonomic reasons have kept the southern population off the federal Endangered Species List, but the orca was added to Washington State's Department of Fish and Wildlife Endangered Species List on April 3, 2004. The designation does not provide as much protection as a federal listing, but could be a step toward protecting the ever-shrinking southern resident population.

Published: 18 Mar 2004 | Last Updated: 8 Nov 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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