What the Inuit Taught Scientists About Killer Whales

The native people knew what orcas ate, how they hunted prey, how the prey responded to the whales and when and where predation occurred

Orcinus orca
Orcinus orca Image by Flickr user *christopher*

When I was a kid, I saw a photograph in an old Life magazine of a man standing on the ice somewhere in the Arctic, and a killer whale breaking trough the ice, much of the whale’s body out of the water, a very short distance from the man. The whale was so close to the man that it was hard to say if the wincing expression on his face was due to being splashed with cold seawater or the thought that he was about to be ruthlessly mauled and eaten by the most vicious and dangerous creature on Earth.

Those were the days, of course, when we called these big sea mammals “killer whales” instead of “orcas,” a term many people use now to help the animals’ reputation and enhance conservation efforts. In the old days we knew that if you were anywhere near the ocean a killer whale would thrust through the ice and grab you and eat you. Later we learned that killer whales eat only fish and are never a threat to humans. Somewhere in there was the film Free Willy, which I never saw but assume showed these large members of the dolphin family to be good guys instead of bad guys.

It is now the 21st century, however, and we have a more sophisticated view of wildlife and animal behavior. It is no longer necessary to protect the reputations of predators in order to convince people to appreciate them for what they are, and it is fairly rare these days (though not yet rare enough) to see conservation policy based on fear rather than science.

Meanwhile, knowledge of Orcinus orca dietary behavior is increasing, and the behavior turns out to be quite complex. For instance, killer whales in the Northwest coastal regions are in fact mainly fish eaters, but migratory whales that move in and out of that region tend to eat mammals. The following three unusual principles seem to be emerging:

  1. Any given group of these whales specializes in a type of food, and a group doesn’t change its dietary pattern very much over time.
  2. There is a wide range of potential specializations, ranging from fish to seals or sea lions to smaller whales to larger whales.
  3. Different social groups can be found in the same waters at the same time, with different specializations for feeding.

The killer whales that live in the far north, mostly in the Arctic Circle, have been studied the least of all, so their dietary preferences and overall relationship to the rest of the ecosystem is not as well known as it is for other groups. Also, with global warming, it appears that killer whales are either newly colonizing some of the waters in these northern regions, or spending more time there than before. To sum up: Killer whales have complex, variable behavior that cannot be assumed without direct observations; a large region in which they live lacks intensive research; and things may be changing in that region. Thus the significance of a very interesting paper, just out, by Steven H. Ferguson, Jeff W. Higdon and Kristin H. Westdal.

The researchers employed a method called “Traditional Ecological Knowledge” to characterize the diet and behavior of killer whales in Nunavut, Canada. People who live in a region often know a lot about its environment. This is, of course, not always true. For instance, here in Minnesota, the bears are all Ursus americanus, also known as “black bears.” But their fur color varies a lot, so there are whitish ones, brownish ones and even blond ones. A lot of Minnesotans think we have two kind of bears here, black and brown, incorrectly assuming that a black bear that is brown is Ursus arctos, the brown bear. The point is, I would not trust a randomly chosen Minnesotan to be able to accurately list which members of the order Carnivora live in their own state, let alone to describe the animals’ diet or behavior.

When I lived with the Efe Pygmies in the Ituri Forest of Congo, the opposite was true. The Efe really knew the animals and their behaviors. It took some patience and expertise (as a trained anthropologist) on my part to get through some of the cultural confusion. For instance, every person has a “totemic” animal, an animal into which deceased ancestors can manifest now and then, and some of these animals were imaginary. But I quickly learned to identify the imaginary animals because in every case there is only one of them, and it lived in a particular spot out in the forest somewhere. Otherwise, however, the Efe had what I would regard as perfect taxonomic knowledge and extensive behavioral knowledge of all of the mammals and birds in in the rain forests in which they lived.

In one instance, the Efe talked about a chameleon that made a “woo woo woo” noise during the full moon, but that was otherwise impossible to find. We scientists, however, knew that chameleons were always silent. There are no vocalizing species of chameleons, so this was impossible. Of course, we would hear this animal every full moon, but assumed it was some kind of as yet unidentified frog or something. Maybe even a bird.

Then, one day, Western scientists discovered this African chameleon that said “woo woo woo” during the full moon. Turns out the Efe were right all along, and we had egg on our scientific faces.

ResearchBlogging.orgThe study at hand points out that killer whale preferences for prey are largely unknown in the eastern Canadian Arctic. To remedy this, the researchers surveyed native Inuit people to develop an understanding of Inuit Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) regarding killer whale feeding ecology. They conducted more than 100 interviews in 11 Nunavut communities in the Kivalliq and Qikiqtaaluk regions during the period from 2007 to 2010.

The Inuit knew about what the whales ate, how they hunted and captured prey, how the prey responded to the whales and when and where predation events occurred. The information provided by the Inuit agreed with the available published literature and expanded on it. For instance, both the TEK and the published information agreed that killer whales sometimes eat only certain parts of their prey, especially in the case of large whales. Also, small groups of killer whales, acting cooperatively, would attack large whales. The Inuit data suggested that the whales took any and all sea mammals, and in this area, either did not eat fish or hardly did so (it had not been observed).

From the published paper:

By combining TEK and scientific approaches we provide a more holistic view of killer whale predation in the eastern Canadian Arctic relevant to management and policy. Continuing the long-term relationship between scientists and hunters will provide for successful knowledge integration and has resulted in considerable improvement in understanding of killer whale ecology relevant to management of prey species. Combining scientists and Inuit knowledge will assist in northerners adapting to the restructuring of the Arctic marine ecosystem associated with warming and loss of sea ice.

In the distant past, scientists often ignored and even made fun of the knowledge of indigenous people. But we now recognize that people who live off the land for generations know more than researchers will discover with years of investigation. If you ask, “should we ignore the vast knowledge of the native people of the Canadian Arctic” the only good answer is, “No, we’ll have Nunavut.”

Ferguson, S., Higdon, J., & Westdal, K. (2012). Prey items and predation behavior of killer whales (Orcinus orca) in Nunavut, Canada based on Inuit hunter interviews Aquatic Biosystems, 8 (1) DOI: 10.1186/2046-9063-8-3

Editor’s Note: Thanks to our readers for catching an error in our original headline. Inuit is indeed the plural form — not Inuits. The error has been fixed. Thanks — BW

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