Quirks & Quarks

Menopause Helps Killer Whale Offspring

Post-reproductive killer whales are valuable elders in their societies with vital survival skills.
Post-reproductive Killer whale mother and her adult son. (David Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research)
Humans and two species of whales - the Killer whale and the Pilot whale, are the only animals known to have an extended post-reproductive life.  Menopause is something of a biological puzzle as most animals reproduce until they die in order to produce as many offspring as possible. 

Canadian researcher  Dr. Lauren Brent, from the Centre for Research in Animal Behaviour at The University of Exeter in England, has been investigating menopause in female Killer whales who stop reproducing in their late thirties, but can live up to a century. 

She's found from behavioural studies that mature females help their families - their sons, daughters and other descendents - by accumulating knowledge about the environment and food resources, thus aiding the survival of their offspring in their post-reproductive years.

Related Links

- Paper in Current Biology
- University of Exeter release
National Geographic story
- Washington Post story
- The Center For Whale Research