(WHALES/ANIMAL SCIENCE) SeaWorld, whaling, and now hot flashes and mood swings… What more must a killer whale endure?! It turns out killer whales also experience menopause. There are only two other species— humans and pilot whales—that live long enough after they stop reproducing. Scientists believe it’s because of the whales’ “unusual social structure in which the offspring never leave their mothers.

Like humans, female killer whales finish up their childbearing years in their 30’s and 40’s but can live until they’re 90. Since the mothers who lead the killer whale family are no longer competing with their daughters to reproduce, they are now free to take care of their grandchildren. The sons do leave briefly for mating but always return home to mom. What’s interesting is that research has shown an increase in adult sons’ mortality rates the year after their mother dies. They believe this may be why the female killer whales evolved to have menopause—to improve the male offsprings’ survival. Read below for more on these amazing animals and their family dynamic. — Global Animal

Researchers discover killer whales experience menopause. They believe it's a result of their unusual social structure./Photo credit: en.wikipedia.org
Researchers have discovered that killer whales experience menopause. They believe it’s a result of their unusual social structure. Photo credit:Wikipedia

The Guardian, Mark Riley Cardwell

Just like humans, killer whales experience menopause – and the rare evolutionary trait improves their offspring’s chances of survival, according to experts.

Killer whales are one of only three species able to continue living long after they have stopped reproducing. This allows mothers to spend the rest of their life looking after their offspring.

Scientists are investigating why the animals evolved this trait. Researchers, from Exeter University and York University, have secured funding from the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) to analyse a dataset of more than 550 killer whales recorded over 30 years.

The dataset, compiled by the Centre for Whale Research in the US, contains birth and death dates as well as details of the genetic and social relationships in two populations of killer whales, which share their menopausal trait with only humans and pilot whales.

Our main aim is to understand why these killer whales have a menopause strategy that’s so similar to humans. Female killer whales stop reproducing in their 30s or 40s but live until they are 90,” said Dr Darren Croft of Exeter University, a lead investigator on the study.

The researchers believe the reasons for the menopause in killer whales lie in their unusual social structure.

The matriarchs lead the killer whale family and continue to care for the offspring even after menopause./Photo credit: nordlysfoto.blogspot.com
The matriarchs lead the killer whale family and continue to care for their offspring even after menopause. Photo credit: nordlysfoto.blogspot.com

Male and female offspring continue to live with their mothers for the duration of their mothers’ life, with males returning to their mothers’ sides after mating with females in other family groups.

The mothers take a leading role in the whales’ 40-strong family groups after they stop producing eggs, and share their expertise of when and where food will be available with their younger relatives.

The possible benefits of menopause for killer whales are that the mothers can care for their children and grandchildren and avoid reproductive competition with their daughters,” said Croft.

In a previous study, published in the journal Science last year, the researchers showed adult males have a 14-fold increase in mortality risk the year after their mother dies.

They hope to once again look at postmenopausal mothers’ effects on their sons’ survival chances and test the idea that competition for resources puts pressure on females that have already had offspring to stop reproducing.

We will look at how the social structures and social behaviour of the whales influences the evolution of menopause and the animals’ survival,” said Dr Dan Franks of York University, who is also leading the study.

More Guardian: http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2013/oct/17/killer-whales-menopause

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