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Killer whales may have menopause so ‘grandma can look after the kids’

Posted on 18 October 2013

University of York researchers are playing a key role in a project investigating why killer whales continue to live long after they have stopped reproducing.

Son (L78) and Post reproductive mother (L2)
Credit: David Ellifret of the Center for Whale Research

Killer whales are just one of three species – we are one of the others ‐ that do so. But scientists still do not know why these three alone evolved this unusual menopausal trait.

A £500,000 project funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC)  will look at why killer whales stop reproducing a third of the way through their lives, dedicating the rest of their lives to protecting and caring for children and grandchildren.

The researchers suspect that the menopause, which the whales experience in their 30s or 40s, is related to the animals’ social structure.

The project research team includes Dr Dan Franks from the University of York’s Department of Biology, who is a lead investigator on the study, and Dr Sonia Mazzi from York’s Department of Mathematics.

Dr Franks, a member of the York Centre for Complex Systems Analysis (YCCSA), said: “Killer whales live in close-knit social groups and sons and daughters stay with their family their entire lives. As a female ages she shares more genes with group members, and theory predicts that older females pass on their genes better by helping their offspring and grand offspring than by continuing to reproduce themselves.”

He added: “The situation with killer whales is quite different to humans. When a killer whale couple reproduces, the male will go to another group to mate with a female there. But, unlike the human population, he will later return to the group where his mother is. So in whales we have different ideas for why older females maybe have more pressure to look after their offspring, and grand‐offspring.”

To discover why the menopause developed in the whales, the team will use information collected over the last 30 years about two populations of killer whales with over 550 individuals between them. The unique dataset includes birth and death dates as well as more complex data, like the genetic and social relationships between the different animals.

Dr Darren Croft, from the University of Exeter, a lead investigator on the study, said: “One way we will approach the analysis of this data is to use a method similar to insurance companies where they give you a quote on life insurance based on the suspected survival of an individual. If a human smokes, is old, or is a heavy drinker

then their insurance premium will go up as their chance of survival is less.

“We can ask, since this calf’s mother or grandmother is alive, how does that affect its chances of survival.”

From preliminary work the scientists expect to show that having a female around who no longer reproduces greatly increases the chances of children and grandchildren surviving.

In addition to the benefits to children and grandchildren, theory predicts that competition over resources may also have contributed to the evolution of menopause.

Dr Franks said: “There is often a conflict over resources between offspring of different generations. If an older female gives birth at the same time as one of her daughters then the two calves will be in competition. Theory predicts that the calves of the older mother should lose out in this competition. So it makes sense for the older female to give up her reproductive rights and instead help raise the younger generation’s offspring.”

They will then look at how a female who has undergone menopause helps offspring survive. They suspect it is because older females take a leadership role in the social group and have more knowledge on where and when food is available.

While human menopause is fairly well understood, the scientists hope to be able to assess their findings against the human menopause and provide greater insight into this unusual animal trait.

Dr Franks said: “I wouldn’t be surprised if through this project we learn more about the evolution of human menopause. Much of what we’re proposing is inspired by research on human menopause, and we expect our research to lead to new ideas that will allow us to ask more questions about human evolution.”

Notes to editors:

  • NERC is the largest funder of environmental science in the UK. It invests £330m in cutting‐edge research, training and knowledge transfer in the environmental sciences. Its scientists study and monitor the whole planet, from pole to pole, and from the deep Earth and oceans to the edge of space. It addresses and responds to critical issues such as environmental hazards, resource security and environmental change. Through collaboration with other science disciplines, with UK business and with policy‐makers, it makes sure its knowledge and skills support sustainable economic growth and public wellbeing ‐ reducing risks to health, infrastructure, supply chains and our changing environment. www.nerc.ac.uk
  • Dr Dan Franks, of the Department of Biology at the University of York, is a member of York Centre for Complex Systems Analysis (YCCSA). YCCSA is a community of researchers drawn from different departments developing novel mathematical, computational and analytical methods and tools for the analysis and modelling of complex systems. More information at www.york.ac.uk/yccsa/

Contact details

Caron Lett
Press Officer

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