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Killer whales are "mummy's boys"

Post reproductive mother and son. Image courtesy of David Ellifrit Centre for Whale Research

An international team of scientists has found the answer to why female killer whales have the longest menopause of any non-human species - to care for their adult sons.

The research led by the Universities of York and Exeter and published in the journal Science, shows that, for a male over 30, the death of his mother means an almost 14-fold-increase in the likelihood of his death within the following year.

The reason for the menopause remains one of nature’s great mysteries and very few species have a prolonged period of their lifespan when they no longer reproduce, as in humans.

However, female killer whales stop reproducing in their 30s-40s, but can survive into their 90s. While different theories have been put forward for the evolution of menopause in humans, including the well-established ‘grandmother’ hypothesis, there has been no definitive answer to why females of a small number of other species, including killer whales, also stop reproducing part-way through their lives.

The researchers analysed records spanning 36 years, of the members of two populations of killer whales (Orcinus orca) in the North Pacific ocean, off the coast of the USA and Canada.

They found the presence of a female who was no longer reproducing significantly increased her older offspring’s survival. In the case of males over the age of 30, a mother’s death meant a 14-fold increase in the likelihood of their death within a year. Females also stay within their mother’s group but for daughters of the same age, the difference is just under three-fold. For females under the age of 30, the death of their mothers had no effect on their survival rates.

The research team included Dr Dan Franks from York’s Departments of Biology and Computer Science, and Dr Sonia Mazzi from the Department of Mathematics, as well as scientists from the University of Exeter, the Center for Whale Research (USA) and the Pacific Biological Station (Canada).

Dr Franks said: "Our analysis shows that male killer whales are pretty much mummy's boys and struggle to survive without their mother's help, even into adulthood.

“In humans, it is thought that menopause evolved so that women can focus on helping to nurture their grandchildren. In killer whales, however, females appear to be important lifelong carers for their adult sons. The need for mothers to care for their sons into adulthood explains why killer whales have evolved the longest post-reproductive lifespan of any non-human animal."

Our analysis shows that male killer whales are pretty much mummy's boys and struggle to survive without their mother's help, even into adulthood

Dr Dan Franks

Killer whales live in unusual social groups, with sons and daughters staying with their mothers in a single group throughout their lives. With this close association, older mothers have the opportunity to increase the transmission of their genes by helping their adult offspring survive and reproduce.

When sons mate, their offspring are cared for by females in another group, whereas when daughters reproduce the offspring stay in the group, which increases local competition for resources within the group. Theory predicts that in order to have the best chance of spreading their genes, without carrying an additional burden, mothers should focus their efforts on their sons. This research backs up the theory and demonstrates the extent to which older sons are dependent on their mothers for survival.

Lead author on the paper, University of Exeter PhD student Emma Foster, said: “Killer whales are extraordinary animals and their social groups are really unusual in that mothers and their sons are lifelong companions. Our research suggests that they have developed the longest menopause of any non-human species so that they can offer this level of commitment to their older offspring.”

The research was supported by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), the Leverhulme Trust and Earthwatch.

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