The most valuable lessons I have learned about being female, I have learned from Killer Whales. For example, it is through my knowledge of these highly cultured whales that I know Nature’s plan for older females.
Let’s face it, human society does not generally help in this regard. As time etches lines into our interiors and exteriors – society does not tell us we are a-okay! No, the general messaging is about loss, faded youth and endings. Firm up! Dye that hair! Want some Botox baby? We’re sweeping you aside, ‘cause you’re old!
Thank goodness I believe in Mother Nature.
As I weather the physiological and psychological changes of this time of my life, I know there is purpose in all this. Humans and Killer Whales are among the very few animal species where the females go through menopause; where they can live beyond their child-bearing years as “post-reproductive females”.
In the case of Killer Whale females, they can give birth between the ages of around 12 to 40 but are believed to be able to live to at least age 80. Thereby, female Killer Whales may live almost twice as long as they have babies. On the face of it, this appears to violate one of Mama Nature’s great laws. That is, if you’re going to use our food, you better pass on our genes.
But Nature makes sense. Therefore, the role of post-reproductive females must be so valuable that it “justifies” their using the population’s resources.
Science in fact believes that the old female Killer Whales are the teachers and decision-makers. These grandmas, wizened by their years, are believed to teach mothering skills, how and where to hunt; and they are known to share food, especially with their eldest son. These activities would benefit the population by ensuring that the offspring are better able to survive and mate . . . passing on shared genes. Since first posting this blog a decade ago, there has been further science published on this. Please see sources below.
The likely role of the old females has been acknowledged in science with the convention being that each family group of Killer Whales is named for the eldest female (e.g. the A12s). Also, the collective name for a group of Killer Whales is “matriline” which loosely translates into “follow your mother”.
Female Killer Whales have taught me that I am not less as I age but rather that there is teaching to be done and leadership to be embraced.
These years are to be lived . . . as a killer female.
Studies related to my reflections above:
- Croft, Darren P. et al.; Reproductive Conflict and the Evolution of Menopause in Killer Whales; Current Biology , Volume 27 , Issue 2 , 298 – 304
- Foster E.A., Franks D.W., Mazzi S., Darden S.K., Balcomb K.C., Ford J.K.B., Croft D.P.Adaptive prolonged postreproductive life span in killer whales. Science. 2012; 337: 1313
- Lauren J.N. Brent, Daniel W. Franks, Emma A. Foster, Kenneth C. Balcomb, Michael A. Cant, Darren P. Croft. Ecological Knowledge, Leadership, and the Evolution of Menopause in Killer Whales. Current Biology, 2015