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Conservation Status:  Endangered

AquaticKiller Whale (orca)

Orcinus orca CetaceansDolphins

Aquarium of the Pacific - Online Learning Center - Species Print Sheet

Conservation Status:  Safe for Now - Protected

Land & AquaticCalifornia Brown Pelican

(Pelicanus occidentalis californicus)Birds

Blue Whale
blue whale blow. Photo taken near Long Beach, California. | © H. Ryono, Aquarium of the Pacific
Blue Whale
© Mike Johnson. Used with permission.

Species Overview

The blue whale is believed to be the largest animal that has ever lived on Earth. It is a member of the family, Balaenopteridae, the rorqual whales. These baleen whales have a dorsal fin and throat grooves, or pleats. The name “rorqual” is derived from a Norwegian word, “rockval”, that means furrow, referring to the throat grooves.

There are three “true” whale subspecies of Balaenoptera musculus. In addition some researchers believe there is a fourth, the pygmy blue whale, B. m. brevicauda while others think the pygmy is merely a small true blue whale. The populations are geographically separated and do not intermix. Most are migratory.

Alkali Heath
Michael Charter. Used with permission

Species Overview

Alkali Heath, a California native plant, is a low growing, perennial, woody subshrub. A halophyte, its common name reflects the plant’s preference for very alkaline soil.

Round Stingray (Round Ray)
© H. Ryono, Aquarium of the Pacific
Round Stingray (Round Ray)
One of our round rays in the Ray Touch Pool | © Aquarium of the Pacific

Species Overview

The round stingray is probably the most numerous of the rays in its distribution area and is the most likely to be involved with stingray injuries to waders and swimmers. The genus name, Urobatis, is based on two Greek words, oura’ and batis’ that translate as tail and ray.

American Kestrel
The Aquarium's American Kestrel | © H. Ryono, Aquarium of the Pacific

Species Overview

American Kestrels were formerly called Sparrowhawks because sparrows were believed to be their diet preference. These birds are the smallest, most common, and most colorful of North American falcons. Males are more brightly colored than females and females are larger than males. Because of their appetite for small rodents such as mice and squirrels, these small falcons play an important role of predators of so-called nuisance species. They are the only North American falcon that regularly hunts by hovering or kiting (sailing on the wind).

Banded Archerfish
photo taken in Aquarium's Tropical Pacific Gallery | Aquarium of the Pacific

Species Overview

Baird’s Beaked Whale
© Nancy Black. Used with permission

Species Overview

Baird’s beaked whales are the largest of the currently known 21 species of beaked whales. Their habitat is the deep ocean which makes them challenging whales to study in the wild. Most information about them has been obtained from dissections of animals killed in coastal hunting off Japan and studies of stranded whales. They are odontocetes (toothed whales), and their tooth structure of two pairs of two teeth each gives them one of their common names, “four-toothed whales”. Another common name for these north Pacific whales is “northern giant bottlenose whale”, because of their dolphin-like beak.

Vaquita
Artist's drawing of vaquita | © Aquarium of the Pacific

Species Overview

In addition to being the smallest member of the porpoise family, vaquita are the smallest of all known cetaceans, have the most restricted range, and are the most critically endangered of all cetaceans. Native to Mexico, their scientific name, Phocoena sinus means “porpoise of the gulf”. Vaquita is Spanish for “little cow”. Their other common names are Gulf of California harbor porpoise, cochito, and vaquita marina. They were not discovered or named until 1958 when three skulls were found on the beach. More than 40 years later little is known about their natural history, and they may become extinct before more is known. Current knowledge is based on sightings of live animals, observations of stranded or trapped animals, and necropsies.

Humpback Whale
Baleen | Courtesy of NOAA
Humpback Whale
In singing position | Courtesy of NOAA

Species Overview

Humpback whales are mysticetes, (baleen whales), in the family Balaenopteridae which includes fin, blue, sei, Bryde’s, and minke whales, the rorquals. All rorquals have a small dorsal fin and longitudinal throat grooves or pleats from their chin to their navel that expand when they feed. The common name, humpback, comes from this whale’s appearance when it arches its back out of the water in preparation for a long dive. These whales are noted for their haunting songs, acrobatic behaviors, and the cooperative feeding methods they use. Easily identified because of the distinctive variability of the black and white patterns on the undersides of their flukes, photo-identification of humpbacks whales started in 1970. Today humpback whales and orcas are the most studied of all the cetaceans.

Eastern Pacific Gray Whale
gray whale blow | © C.Monroe, Aquarium of the Pacific
Eastern Pacific Gray Whale
Friendly gray whale in San Ignacio Lagoon. | © P.Hampton, Aquarium of the Pacific

Species Overview

Whalers called gray whales “devilfish” because of the way they fiercely defended themselves and their calves from being attacked by humans and non-human prey. Today we call them the “friendly” whales because of the way they seek out close contact with humans in selected lagoons in Baja California, Mexico.

Bat Ray
One of our bat rays in our touch pool. | © Andrew Reitsma. Aquarium of the Pacific

Species Overview

The triangular shaped pectoral fins of the bat ray are often called the wings and compared to those of a bat, hence the common name. These rays swim gracefully by flapping their bat-like pectoral fins bird style. The fins are also used to hunt food. The rays flap their pectoral fins in the sand to expose buried prey and then use their lobe-like snout to dig prey from their sandy bottom habitats.

Black-bellied Plover
Photo taken in Alaska during breeding season | © Matt Goff (http://www.narwhal.org)

Species Overview

Black-bellied Plovers, medium-sized long-winged shorebirds, are known as Grey Plovers in Europe. Like most plovers, when on the ground they move in a stop-run-stop fashion. These migratory birds use several flyways when they leave their summer breeding grounds in the Arctic to fly to southern wintering areas. They usually fly along the Pacific Flyway to reach California.

Western Snowy Plover
Nesting WSP | Courtesy of USG
Western Snowy Plover
Mother and chick

Species Overview

The Western Snowy Plover is one of two Snowy Plover subspecies recognized in North America. The Pacific coast population, C. alexandrinus nivosus, is defined as the population that exists from the coast to 80 km (50 mi) inland. These birds nest on the mainland coast, peninsulas, offshore islands, and in bays, estuaries, or river outlets in Washington, Oregon, California, and Baja California, Mexico. The population is distinct from the one that breeds in the US western interior and it is listed as threatened under the US Endangered Species Act. The west coast population uses 20 Pacific coast breeding sites with the largest in south San Francisco Bay where there are about 500 breeding pairs.

Pacific Cownose Ray
© Anitza Valles, Aquarium of the Pacific
Pacific Cownose Ray
Cownose ray in our Shark Lagoon | © K. Constanza

Species Overview

Cownose rays belong to the family, Myliobatidae, which also includes eagle and manta rays. They have the familiar winged shape of many species of large rays. This species has a distinguishing characteristic, its rostrum, the basis for its common name, cownose. The pectoral fins separate at the front of the head into two lobes with a center crease which, combined with the indented notch in the ray’s cartilaginous skull, give the rays a cow-like appearance. The species is migratory, usually traveling in schools.

California Brown Pelican
mature Brown Pelicans | Courtesy of NOAA
California Brown Pelican
immature Brown Pelican | Courtesy of NOAA

Species Overview

Of the seven or eight species of Pelicans found worldwide, two are native to North America—the marine Brown Pelican, Pelecanus occidentalis, and the fresh water White Pelican, (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos). The California Brown Pelican, a subspecies of P. occidentalis, is the smallest member of the pelican family. It is easily recognizable because of its famous pouched bill that inspired the limerick: that begins: “A wonderful bird is the pelican. His bill will hold more than his belican”. The limerick is true. A pelican’s pouch will hold 11 l (3 gal) of water and his stomach only 3.8 l (1 gal). Highly social and gregarious, pelicans rest, roost, and nest in colonies.

African Penguin
Released to public domain by A.Pingstone

Species Overview

The African Penguin is the only one of 17 penguin species that lives on the African continent and its offshore islands. This species has had several names: Jackass Penguins because their raucous squawks sound like the braying of a donkey; and Blackfooted Penguin, although its feet are black and gray. Endemic to Africa, the common name, African Penguin, describes them best. In Afrikaans the word for African Penguin is “brilpikkewyn” (pronounced bril as in brilliant-puh-kuh-vain), which means braying penguin.

Douglas Iris
Douglas iris flower | Courtesy of National Park Service

Species Overview

The Douglas iris, also called the Pacific Coast iris, is one of three species of the genus Iris native to the west coast of North America. It is a fast growing, drought tolerant perennial plant that has purple flowers in early spring. The flowers attract insects and hummingbirds. This iris species requires little maintenance and naturalizes easily making it a sought after plant to use in a native plant garden. It was widely used by Native Americans as food, medicine, and a source of fibers for rope.

Dusky Pademelon
Our pademelon out for a wagon ride among our guests | Aquarium of the Pacific
Dusky Pademelon
Aquarium of the Pacific

Species Overview

The name, pademelon, is derived from an aboriginal or native Australian term for ‘small kangaroo from the forest’. Pademelons, petite members of the kangaroo and wallaby family, are marsupials, that is, females have an abdominal pouch.

Desert Woodrat
© L. Indges, California Academy of Science. Used with permission.

Species Overview

Woodrats are commonly called “pack rats” because they have a tendency to collect any curious object they find. The desert woodrat, Neotoma lepida, is one of 22 species of woodrats found in North and Central America. The smallest of southern California’s woodrats, it is related to cotton rats and deer, harvest, and grasshopper mice.

Ammonite
© L.Young, Aquarium of the Pacific.
Ammonite
Tomomarusan. Permission granted under GNU Free Documentation License v1.2

Species Overview

Cowkiller Velvet Ant
© A. Reitsma, Aquarium of the Pacific

Species Overview

Velvet ants are definitely different! While they do appear to be velvety, they are wasps, not ants. Males can fly. Females are flightless because they do not have wings. Females can sting: males cannot. As for the cowkiller common name of this species, their sting is not potent enough to kill a cow; however, humans stung by this velvet ant experience such intense pain that they believe the sting could kill a cow.

California Barracuda
Photographed in their habitat, the Aquarium's Blue Cavern | © Aquarium of the Pacific

Species Overview

Binturong
Rungus, a former resident of the Aquarium's Explorer's Cove. | Aquarium of the Pacific

Species Overview

Binturongs live in rainforest canopies. They crawl and hang upside-down in the canopy like sloths and come down trees head-first like squirrels. On the ground they walk flat-footed, ambling from side to side like bears. They stand on their hind legs balancing on their tails like kangaroos.

Blacksmith
Courtesy NOAA's Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary
Blacksmith

Species Overview

Blacksmith are members of the damselfishes family, Pomacentridae. Although most other damselfishes are found in tropical waters, the blacksmith and the garibaldi inhabit the temperate waters of southern California and the subtropical of Baja California’s west coast.

Brown Bear
Photo taken at Kalmai National Park, Alaska | © C.Fisher, Aquarium of the Pacific

Species Overview

Brown bears are a symbol of America’s wildlands. In the time of the Lewis and Clark expedition they ranged over much of North America’s mid-plains, westward to California, and from central Mexico to Alaska and Canada’s Northwest Territory. Today only about 1,000 brown bears are found in the lower 48 states, where they have lost 99 percent of their former range.

Black-tailed Jackrabbit
Courtesy National Park Service

Species Overview

Contrary to their name, the black-tailed rabbits are actually hares, and their only their tails are colored black. Black-tailed rabbits are the most plentiful, while being the only hares found in desert habitats. What separates hares from rabbits are factors such as the body, ears, legs, and their young. The bodies of hares tend to be leaner, and they have longers ears and legs as well. While rabbits build nests, hares do not, and their young are born well-furred with wide open eyes. Black-tailed rabbits are the plentiful, while being the only jack rabbit found in desert habitats.

Bluespotted Jawfish
Jawfish in the Aquarium's garden eel exhibit. | Aquarium of the Pacific

Species Overview

Black Perch
New England Aquarium. Used with permission.
Black Perch

Species Overview

Black perch are also called black surfperch and butterlips. In spite of their name, black perch, these fish are rarely, if ever, black. Their coloration can be orange, red, gray, green, various shades of brown, and other colors.

Banded Sea Krait
One of the Aquarium of the Pacific's male sea kraits | Aquarium of the Pacific

Species Overview

While the venom of banded sea kraits ranks among the most toxic in the world, they are so docile and non-aggressive that humans are rarely bitten, even in situations where the animal feels threatened.

Bull Shark
Bull Shark
© Aquarium of the Pacific

Species Overview

In comparison to the streamlined look of most other sharks, bull sharks have a massive and stocky appearance because of their much wider body in relation to their length. Their common name comes from their short blunt snout which is said to resemble that of a bull. In company with the great white and tiger sharks, they are one of the top three sharks implicated in unprovoked fatal attacks throughout the world. They are considered by many to be more dangerous than the great white because of their preferred habitat—shallow shoreline areas and river mouths, where there is human activity.

They are common in the Gulf of Mexico waters off Florida’s coast.

Black-necked Stilt
One of our Black-necked Stilts in its exhibit at the Aquarium. | Andrew Reitsma
Black-necked Stilt
One of our Black-necked Stilts in its exhibit at the Aquarium. | Andrew Reitsma

Species Overview

Black-necked Stilts are usually migratory birds, but there are some resident populations in coastal southern California and western Mexico. There is a very large resident population at San Francisco Bay where they mingle with resident American Avocets, Recurvirostra americana. There are smaller groups at the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve, Seal Beach National Wildlife Refuge, and the northern area of Upper Newport Bay. Living and nesting in flocks, they are gregarious, noisy, and aggressive birds.

Bluefin Trevally
Juvenile bluefin trevally NW Hawaiian Islands | Courtesy of NOAA's NMFS
Bluefin Trevally
Photo taken at the Aquarium's Soft Coral Reef | Aquarium of the Pacific

Species Overview

Bluefin trevally are members of the jack family, Carangidae, which includes jacks, jack mackerel, pompano, and scads. These fish are streamlined, aggressive in behavior especially when feeding, strong and fast swimmers, and beautiful in coloration. Usually solitary, they may also be found in small groups in shallow coastal water and in deep, open ocean habitats. The Hawaiian name for this species is omilu.

Cane Toad
Juvenile cane toad. Photo taken in Florida's Everglades. | Courtesy of USGS
Cane Toad
© B. Waller. Used under GFDL v1.2

Species Overview

Also known as the giant or marine toad, cane toads have the dubious distinction of being on the Global Invasive Species Database of “The 100 World’s Worse Invasive Species”. Their potent poison is contained in glands in the skin and in the immense parotid glands on each shoulder. These toads are poisonous in all stages of their lives—as eggs, tadpoles, toadlets, and adults. The secretions of cane toads are highly toxic and can sicken or kill animals that bite or feed on them, including cats, dogs, birds, and snakes.

California Condor
juvenile condor released at Grand canyon | Courtesy of USFWS
California Condor
Condor #33 released at the Grand Canyon. | Courtesy NPS

Species Overview

California Condors are one of the largest flying birds in the world, second only to the Andean Condor. They are vultures. In 1987 the species was close to extinction when the last seven birds still in the wild were captured and, with other Condors already in captivity, placed in a propagation program aimed at saving the species from extinction. Through the efforts of a public-private partnership of state and federal wildlife agencies, zoos, and wildlife foundations, the captive and wild population now numbers about 250 birds. Almost all of the birds were introduced from captive breeding and reintroduction programs.

Weedy Scorpionfish
Photo taken by K. Leonard. ©Aquarium of the Pacific

Species Overview

The weedy scorpionfish’s cryptic camouflage is an invaluable tool for hunting prey and avoiding becoming prey itself. Both prey and predators mistake the well camouflaged fish for a piece of seaweed.

Geographic Cone Snail
Courtesy NIGMS

Species Overview

The geographic cone is also known by the name Anbonia, a name derived from its discovery in the Gulf of Anbonia in Indonesia. This fairly large cone is the most dangerous of the cone shell species.

Sperm Whale
© P.Colla. Used with permission.

Species Overview

Able to dive to depths of 2,987 meters (9,800 feet), the sperm whale is the deepest diver of all the marine mammals.

Largest of the toothed whales, the deep-diving sperm whale is also the largest toothed animal in the world. The species name, macrocephalus, Greek for “big head”, describes one identifying characteristic of this whale. The male’s head is typically about one third its total body length (e.g., 5.2 m (17 ft) in a 15.4 m (51 ft) long male). The common name was derived from a milky-white substance called spermaceti contained in an organ in the whales’ head which was though to contain sperm. The size of the whale’s head is attributed to the size of this organ that can weigh 13.6 tonnes (15 tons) and contain 3.6 tonnes (4 tons) of oil.

Rockmover Wrasse
© A. Reitsma, Aquarium of the Pacific

Species Overview

This wrasse has a number of common names: rockmover, dragon, and reindeer. Rockmover comes from the behavior in which they move coral fragments and rubble to find prey. Reindeer and dragon describe the first two dorsal fin spines of juveniles that are elongated.

Unarmored Threespine Stickleback
Courtesy of California EPA

Species Overview

The unarmored threespine stickleback is one of several subspecies of Gasterosteus aculeatus in the family Gasterosteidae. First described in 1854, it has been the object of comprehensive studies in an effort to properly relate it to other subspecies. Always limited in distribution to a small area of Southern California, it is of special interest because encroachment on its habitat has substantially reduced its numbers and it is in danger of becoming extinct.

Red Sea Urchin
Red sea urchin in the Aquarium's abalone exhibit | Aquarium of the Pacific

Species Overview

Sea urchins belong to a group of marine invertebrates called echinoderms, which means spiny-skinned animals. They are related to sea stars, sea cucumbers, and sand dollars. Like their relatives, sea urchins do not have a brain or heart.

Textile Cone Snail
Courtesy of NSF

Species Overview

Cone snails are one of the most venomous creatures on earth. Among the most toxic are the textile, geographic, and tulip snails and there is a higher risk of death if the geographic and textile snails are involved. All capture their prey by means of harpoon-like hollow teeth (radula) that are rapidly jabbed into their prey to inject the toxic venom. Attacks on humans usually occur when a cone snail is either stepped on in the ocean or picked up from the water or the beach.

Cone Snails General Description
Aquarium of the Pacific

Species Overview

Cone snails are among the most venomous creatures on earth. Among the most toxic are the textile, geographic, and tulip snails and there is a higher risk of death if the geographic and textile snails are involved. All capture their prey by means of harpoon-like hollow teeth (radula) that are rapidly jabbed into their prey to inject the toxic venom. Attacks on humans usually occur when a cone snail is either stepped on in the ocean or picked up from the water or the beach.

California Cordgrass
copy; M.Charter. Used with permission.

Species Overview

California cordgrass is also called Pacific cordgrass. It is a California native, a perennial, and a coastal saltmarsh facultative halophyte, that is, it tolerates salt but salt is not a requirement for its growth. It is a tall reedy grass, usually higher than the other plants in the salt marsh.

Coyote
Courtesy of Texas DSHS

Species Overview

The common name, coyote, comes from the word used by Mexico’s Nahuati Indians, coyoti. The scientific name literally means “barking dog”. Known as opportunistic predators, coyotes use keen hearing and an excellent sense of smell combined with their sharp eyesight to find their next meal. They avoid areas where there are wolves and extension of their range northward may be the result of settling in habitats where wolf populations have been eliminated.

Crested Auklet
Crested Auklet flock with Least Auklets | Courtesy of USGS
Crested Auklet
Pair of auklets in breeding plumage. | Courtesy of USFWS

Species Overview

California Coastal Range Newt
Courtesy of USGS

Species Overview

Native to California, California coastal range newts are one of five salamander species found in the state. They are also called gold belly newts. Glands in the skin of these newts produce a highly toxic poison (tetrodotoxin) which makes the animal dangerous to handle and deadly to eat.

California Brown Sea Hare
copy; A. Valles, Aquarium of the Pacific
California Brown Sea Hare
"Inking" sea hare | © G. Anderson. Used with permission

Species Overview

The California brown sea hare, a mollusk, is also called a sea slug. It is a marine snail that has an interior small remnant of a shell and no external shell. The common name, sea hare, is derived from the large anterior tentacles that are ear-like and were thought by some to resemble the ears of a hare. This species “inks”, that is, expels a thick cloud of purple ink.

Eelgrass
Surfrider Foundation. Used with permission.

Species Overview

Although grass-like, eelgrass is technically a flowering plant that grows submerged in salt water. The salt tolerant plants form eelgrass meadows or beds that are both a biologically diverse ecosystem and a primary producer. They provide the base for a complex nearshore food web that starts with diatoms coating the plant blades to form an attachment for bacteria, fungi, and detritus. They act as a critical nursery and shelter for many species of fishes, shore and seabirds, and invertebrates. These beds also guard against erosion by dampening wave energy from storms and stabilize substrate. Sensitive to pollution, eelgrass is an indicator species for water quality.

Giant Flashlight Fish
This image shows the the "headlights" of the Aquarium's flashlight fish. | © A. Reitsma/Aquarium of the Pacific

Species Overview

On moonless nights, the giant flashlight fish does a vertical migration to shallower waters to find prey, returning to the safety of deeper waters at sunrise.

Another common name for the giant flashlight fish is splitfin flashlight fish. These fish use their blinking lights to communicate with other giant flashlightfish, assist in schooling, and mating, and to attract prey.,

Golden Poison Dart Frog
Photo taken at the Aquarium's exhibit of dart frogs. | © A. Reitsma, Aquarium of the Pacific

Species Overview

Although all poison dart frogs are venomous, only three have poison that is lethal to humans. The golden poison frog is one of these and the most deadly. Its poison is 20 times more toxic than that of other dart frogs. It is reported that an amount of poison equal to 2-3 grains of table salt is enough to cause the death of a human. Perhaps, that is the reason their other common name is terrible frog.

Freshwater Sawfish
the sharp tooth-like structures of the sawfish's saw | Photo taken by K. Leonard. © Aquarium of the Pacific
Freshwater Sawfish
Our sawfish in the Aquarium's Shark Lagoon habitat | © Aquarium of the Pacific

Species Overview

Pristis microdonis one of eight species of sawfish in the genus Pristis. It has two common names, the freshwater sawfish and the largetooth sawfish. The latter common name is also used for three other species in the genus. Freshwater sawfish are rays, and are related to stingrays, skates, sharks, and other fishes with cartilaginous skeletons.

Southern Reticulated Gila Monster
© A.Reitsma. Aquarium of the Pacific
Southern Reticulated Gila Monster
Gila monster at Los Angeles County's Natural History Museum | © A.Reitsma. Aquarium of the Pacific

Species Overview

The Gila monster is the largest of the lizards found in the United States. It received its name from the Gila River Basin where it was first found. Unique in appearance and habits, it is well adapted to its preferred habitats of desert lowlands and foothills. It is venomous with toxicity similar to that of the diamondback rattlesnake, but because of limited ability to inject its venom, it is not as dangerous and its bite is not considered lethal. Populations are declining and the species is protected in all areas of its distribution.

Great Blue Heron
A wingspan of 2.1 m (7 Ft). | © G.Oleynik. Used with permission.

Species Overview

The Great Blue Heron is the best known and most widely distributed of all North American herons. These large gray-blue birds with their long legs, necks, and bills are familiar sights throughout many parts of the United States as they stand silently and majestically in shallow water poised to launch at unsuspecting prey, or fly overhead with neck curled over their shoulders, long legs extended, and widespread wings slowly and gracefully beating.

Green Nape Lorikeet
Aquarium of the Pacific
Green Nape Lorikeet
A tasty morsel | Aquarium of the Pacific

Species Overview

The Green Nape Lorikeet, also called the Green-naped Lorikeet, is one of the most common of the 21 subspecies of Trichoglossus haematodus, the Rainbow Lorikeets. In the same family as parrots, their colorful plumage, acrobatic maneuvers, and wide range of vocalizations combine to make them one of the best known of the Rainbow Lorikeets.

Harbor Seal
Shelby is 12 years old. She looks similar to our other harbor seals but she has a pointy muzzle and a black coat with whitish-gray spots. | ©: Aquarium of the Pacific, Hugh Ryono
Harbor Seal
Ellie is our oldest harbor seal. Nineteen years old, she is the matriarch of our pinnipeds. Her coat is a brownish color. | ©: Aquarium of the Pacific, Hugh Ryono

Species Overview

Harbor seals are members of the family Phocidae. Lacking an external ear flap, members of this family are commonly called the true or earless seals. Fur seals in the family Otariidae, which includes fur seals and California sea lions, are known as eared seals. Earless seals cannot rotate their hind flippers under their bodies so they undulate when on dry land, keeping their flippers at their sides and trailing their hind flippers along unused.

This species has the broadest distribution of the pinniped group of animals. The term “pinniped” comes from the Latin “pinna”, meaning winged, and “ped”, meaning foot. There are five commonly recognized harbor seal subspecies based on geographic distribution; P. v. concolor, P. v. mellonae, P. v. steinegeri, P. v. vitulina., and P. v. richardii.The latter harbor seal subspecies is the one found in southern California.

Hooded Pituhoi
© J. Dumbacher. Used with permission.

Species Overview

There are six sub-species of Pitohuis. The level of toxicity varies by sub-species, geographic location, and diet. Some individuals from some populations do not have toxin. The most colorful, the Hooded Pitohui, P. dichrous, and Variable Pitohui, P. kirhocephalus, are the most toxic.

Southern Pacific Rattlesnake
© Russs Smith. Used with permission.

Species Overview

The Southern Pacific rattlesnake, one of the largest rattlesnakes, is one of several dangerously venomous rattlesnakes species native to California. Their venom is highly toxic to humans and occasionally fatal; however, they strike humans only if cornered or threatened.

Sarcastic Fringehead
Fringehead in a plastic tube. Scripps Canyon, La Jolla, California | M. Kjaergaard, Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.5

Species Overview

Although usually less than 10 inches long, sarcastic fringeheads are fearless and extremely aggressive, charging anything that approaches their burrows. The sarcastic part of their common name is attributed to their temperament and the fringehead to the distinctive appendages over their eyes.

Saltgrass
© Michael Charter. Used with permission

Species Overview

Saltgrass is a perennial halophyte. The subspecies, Distichlis spicata spicata (L) Greene, is a California native that tolerates the alkali soil in the marsh plains and salt pans of coastal saltmarshes.

Saltmarsh Dodder
© Greg Vogel. Used with permission.

Species Overview

Saltmarsh dodder is one of eight California native species of Cuscuta. This species grows as a leafless, rootless, yellow or orange vine. It cannot photosynthesize to satisfy its own energy needs so it gets its nutrients and water from its hosts, salt tolerant halophytes, (such as pickleweed, Salicornia virginica), that grow in tidal coastal saltmarshes. Such parasites are called holoparasites. Although the plants have little if any chlorophyll and no leaves, they are still classified as true plants.

Saltwort
Male saltwort plant | © M.Charter. Used with permission

Species Overview

Saltwort is also called beachwort. Another name is glasswort which is also used for Salcornia virginica, (pickleweed). Saltwort plants are perennial halophytes that can also grow in fresh water. On California’s coast they are often found in company with pickleweed, and cordgrass (Spartina foliosa).

Southern Sea Otter
Brooke, enjoying a treat of clam | Aquarium of the Pacific, M. Sousa
Southern Sea Otter
Charlie picking out a morsel of ice
to chew | Aquarium of the Pacific, R. Riggs

Species Overview

Sea otters, the smallest and most recently evolved of all marine mammals, are in the family Mustelidae that includes weasels, ferrets, badgers, skunks, freshwater and sea otters, and minks. There are three subspecies: the northern (Alaska) sea otter Enhydralutris kenyoni; the Asian sea otter E. l. lutris; and the southern sea otter E. l. neresis. The genus name, Enhydra, comes from the Greek for “in water”; the species name, lutris , from the Latin word for otters; and the subspecies name of the southern sea otter, neresis, means sea nymph or swimmer.

Salty Susan
©: M.Charter. Used with permission.

Species Overview

Salty Susan is a California native plant, a halophyte, and a member of the Sunflower Family. Other common names are saltmarsh daisy, marsh jaumea, and fleshy jaumea. It is a perennial succulent that forms a creeping ground cover. It resembles pickleweed (Salicornia virginica) but its stems do not have joints and it has visible leaves.

Sea Lavender
© M.Charter. Used with permission.

Species Overview

One of the three specimens native to North America is native to California, Limonium californicum. In spite of its common names of sea lavender and marsh rosemary, Limonium californicum is not related to any rosemary or lavender species of plants; in actually is related to morning glory. Sea lavender is a halophyte in the Leadwort Family.

Spiny Rush
© Michael Charter. Used with permission.

Species Overview

Spiny rush’s other common names are Leopold’s rush, wire grass, and southwestern spiny rush. It is an erect, very spiny plant that is able to live in both freshwater and saline environments. It was introduced into southern Australia where it is considered to be a weed due to its success as a primary colonizer. Grazing animals avoid grazing where this plant thrives. Once it becomes established, it covers the area and out-competes almost all other vegetation.

Blacktip Reef Shark
Photo taken in the Mariana Islands | Courtesy of NOAA's NMFS
Blacktip Reef Shark
Photo taken at the Aquarium's Shark Lagoon | © Aquarium of the Pacific and K. Leonard

Species Overview

The blacktip reef shark is a common inhabitant of many tropical reef communities, frequently observed in relatively shallow water. Considered a harmless shark and unagressive, it is curious and will investigate things that are not common to its habitat. Although neither a solitary or schooling fish, it is frequently seen in small aggregations, especially when feeding.

Stinging Eel Catfish
Our stinging catfish school in an exhibit in our Tropical Reef Gallery. | © A. Reitsma, Aquarium of the Pacific

Species Overview

The stinging catfish is the only one of the 75 species of catfish that is found among coral reefs. Catfish are named for the barbels on the mouth that give the image of cat-like whiskers. The stinging catfish’s genus name Plotusus is derived from the Greek work, plotus, which means swimming, and its species name from the Latin word, linea, referring to the stripe or line. Their venom

Shiner Surfperch
© California Academy of Science. Used with permission.
Shiner Surfperch

Species Overview

About 16 species of surfperch are found in southern California waters.

Sand Tiger Shark
© Aquarium of the Pacific and K. Leonard
Sand Tiger Shark
Photo taken at the Aquarium's Shark Lagoon | © Aquarium of the Pacific

Species Overview

Sand tiger sharks are also known as spotted raggedtooth , ground, or gray nurse sharks. It is rumored that aquariums are the source of the “tiger” in the sand tiger name. Originally, called sand sharks, the tiger was added to make them seem more ferocious. All sharks in this family swim slowly with their mouths open, exposing long, narrow, needle-like teeth. A fearsome sight indeed!

Thornback
Thornback at Elkhorn Slough, California | Mischa Lochton/Pelagic Shark Research Foundation

Species Overview

There are three species of thornbacks but only one, Platyrhinoidis triseriata, is found in California where it is a native fish, often called the. California or Pacific thornback. A thornback is a small to moderate sized, inshore fish that while distantly related to rays, is more closely related to guitarfish. For this reason the preferred common name of this species is thornback, not thornback ray. The name is derived from the sharp protective spines on the back and tail. These elasmobranchs are plentiful in southern California where they are frequently caught by both sport and commercial fishers.

Topsmelt
Tosmelt in the Aquarium's Amber Forest | © A.Reitsma, Aquarium of the Pacific

Species Overview

Although their common name contains “smelt”, topsmelt are not true smelt—they are in the silversides family, Atherinidae, a family that includes jacksmelt (Atherinopsis californiensis) and grunion (Leuresthes tenuis). The family name, silversides, is very descriptive as these small elongate fish appear to be formed of burnished silver. They are common along the southern California coast and frequently appear in large schools, sometimes in the company of sardines. Having the ability to tolerate varying levels of salinity, this species is found in both marine and estuarine environments.

Killdeer
Searching for a meal. | Tom Grey. Used with permission.

Species Overview

Killdeer are “true” shorebirds, although they range far from shores. They have some of the most common characteristics of these birds such as long legs and a long bill, but unlike many wading birds, Killdeer have short necks.

Garibaldi
garabaldi and red sea urchin spines | Courtesy of California Parks
Garibaldi
Taken at Channel Islands NMS | Courtesy of National Marine Sanctuary

Species Overview

Native to the subtropical and temperate Pacific Ocean, garibaldi are the largest of the damselfishes in the family, Pomacentridae. Although most other damselfishes are found in tropical waters, the garibaldi and blacksmith inhabit the subtropical waters of southern California and Baja California’s west coast. The common name, garibaldi, may have been based on the name of the Italian patriot, Giuseppe Garibaldi, whose army wore bright red shirts, or after the “garibaldi”, a woman’s red blouse worn in the 1890’s. The bright orange coloration of the garibaldi is the most distinctive of all fishes found on the California coast and they are sometimes erroneously called goldfish.

Zebra Shark
a zebra shark in the Aquarium's Coral reef with a sharksucker | ©: Aquarium of the Pacific
Zebra Shark
One of our zebra sharks in Shark Lagoon | © Aquarium of the Pacific

Species Overview

Zebra shark, the common name of these slow-swimming, non-aggressive, bottom-dwelling sharks, is derived from the coloration of the juveniles that have narrow bars reminiscent of a zebra’s stripes. The bars are lost in adults, becoming spots. The appearance of the adults has earned these sharks the common name of leopard shark in Australia.

Pickleweed
&copt; M.Charter. Used with permission.

Species Overview

Pickleweed species belong to the Goosefoot family (Chenopodiaceae) which includes sugar beets and spinach. Salicornia virginica is a California native species of pickleweed. It has many common names including turtleweed, glasswort, saltwort, Virginia pickleweed, sampfire, and sea asparagus. The name ‘pickleweed’ comes from the pickle-like appearance of its stem segments and its salty taste. It is a halophyte commonly found in estuaries and bays where there is protection from wave action. It is often said that pickleweed can survive under conditions that no other salt tolerant plant is able to.

Ruddy Duck
Courtesy of USGS
Ruddy Duck
Photo taken at Two Cities NWR | Courtesy of USFWS

Species Overview

Ruddy Ducks are diving ducks that belong to the family of stiff-tailed ducks, named for their stiff tail that acts like a rudder. The ruddy part of their common name comes from the rust-red breeding plumage of the male. They are native to North America where they are wide-spread and common. Very awkward on land, they spend almost all of their time in shallow water at the edge of wetlands where there is an abundance of vegetation to hide in.

Bowmouth Guitarfish
© Shin-Enoshima Aquarium. Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike License v2.5
Bowmouth Guitarfish
A. Reitsma. Aquarium of the Pacific

Species Overview

These unique fish get the guitar part of their common name, “guitarfish”, from the shape of the body. The bowmouth part of the name is derived from their mouth shape that has wavy edges giving the appearance of a longbow, (a large, powerful, wooden hand-drawn bow). The distinctive appearance of these rays, that of a shark-ray mix, is the reason for some of their other common names, shark ray and sharkfin guitarfish.

Grunt Sculpin
A distinctively colored fish | © J.Nichols. Used with permission.

Species Overview

Grunt sculpins, the only species in the family Rhamphocottidae, are unique looking marine fish. Distinctive characteristics include a large head that is about 60 percent of the body length, a long snout, and two bony ridges on top of the head. Instead of scales, they have small plates with many minute spines.

Leafy Seadragon
Photo taken at the Aquarium of the Pacific's seadragon habitat | © Aquarium of the Pacific and K. Leonard
Leafy Seadragon
Seadragons like temperate water so the water in their habitat is colder than that in the rest of the Tropical Pacific Gallery exhibits. | Aquarium of the Pacific, B. Gray

Species Overview

Named seadragons after the dragons of Chinese legends, leafy seadragons definitely resemble the dragon of fairy tales. They are bony fish in the family Syngnathidae which includes seahorses and pipefishes. Although relatives, their appearance is quite different in that they have a tail that cannot be coiled and they have leaf-like appendages on the head and body.

Whitetip Reef Shark
Photo taken in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands National Monument | Courtesy of NMFS
Whitetip Reef Shark
Whitetip shark under a coral reef ledge in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands. | Courtesy of NOAA

Species Overview

The whitetip reef shark is slender and sleek with characteristic white markings on the tips of several of its fins. These markings gave it its common name, whitetip. It is an agile swimmer well suited for its mostly reef habitat existence.

Silver Surfperch
Artist's rendering | Courtesy of California Fish and Game

Species Overview

Silver surfperch are native to the eastern Pacific coast with the exception of two species found off the coast of Japan. There are 20 marine and one freshwater species in the family Embiotocidae with about 15 marine and the one lone freshwater species (tule perch, Hysterocarpus traski), being found in California. They are uniquely different from most other bony fishes in that they do not broadcast spawn eggs and sperm. Fertilization is internal and the females give birth to live, highly developed, free swimming young.

Chambered Nautilus
Photo taken at Berlin Zoo and Aquarium | T.Baecher. Released to public domain.

Species Overview

In most geographic areas, the chambered nautilus migrates vertically at sundown from depths of 610 meters (2000 feet) to 91 meters (300 feet) to seek prey, returning to the deep ocean at sunrise.

The chambered nautilus, a cephalopod, is a relative of the ancient ammonoids and a modern relative of squid, octopus, and cuttlefish. Unlike its relatives, the nautilus has an external shell. It inhabits ocean waters close to the sea floor during the day, migrating to shallower water at night in search of prey.

Olive Ridley Sea Turtle
A closeup view | © Aquarium of the Pacific and K. Leonard
Olive Ridley Sea Turtle
Photo taken at the Aquarium's Soft Coral Reef in the Tropical Pacific Gallery. | © Aquarium of the Pacific and K. Leonard

Species Overview

Olive ridley turtles are the smallest and most numerous of the seven sea turtle species. The ‘olive’ in their common name comes from the coloration of the adults. Males usually spend their entire lives at sea while females characteristically only leave the water to lay their eggs, usually on the beach where they themselves hatched (nest site fidelity). Over the years, purposeful and accidental depredations have seriously reduced populations of this species in selected geographic areas.

Greater Blue-ringed Octopus
octopus with eggs | © R.Caldwell. Used with permission
Greater Blue-ringed Octopus
© R.Caldwell. Used with permission

Species Overview

The greater blue-ringed octopus is one of several species of blue-ringed octopuses. All are thought to be venomous and for their size, they are the most deadly of all cephalopods. It is said that the venom of this octopus could kill 26 adults in just a few minutes. There is no antivenin for treatment. Fortunately, these octopuses do not attack humans. Injury typically occurs when a blue-ringed octopus is stepped on or picked up.

Mudskipper
Checking out the territory | Photo taken by K. Leonard. &Copy; Aquarium of the Pacific

Species Overview

There are 34 species of mudskippers divided into three broad types. The smallest leave the water only at low tide and stay at the water’s edge. Medium-sized mudskippers spread across the mud flats. Many are territorial building a low ridge around the boundary of their territory. The largest live at the highest part of the mud flat that is covered only at high tide. This type is known to eat small mudskippers.

White’s Tree Frog
California's tree frog, Hyla cadaverina | Courtesy of USGS
White’s Tree Frog
© LiquidGhoul. Released to public domain.

Species Overview

These frogs were first described by John White, hence the common name, White’s. The tree part of their name comes from their preferred habitat, tree canopies. White’s tree frogs are also known as the dumpy tree frogs, green tree frogs, giant green frogs (Florida), and Australian green tree frogs. They are described as quiet, very gentle, laidback animals that, unlike most of their relatives, are not into jumping. They are popular exotic pets world-wide.

Mountain Lion
Courtesy NPS
Mountain Lion
Courtesy USFWS

Species Overview

Mountain lions are secretive, usually solitary, and very territorial. Also called puma, panther and catamount, they are the most widely distributed cat species in North America and the largest. Able to hunt both day and night, their power, good climbing, and excellent jumping abilities, make them top predators that seek out large mammals such as white-tailed and mule deer, and in their northern ranges, bighorn sheep, elk, and moose.

Threespine Stickleback

Species Overview

The threespine stickleback is the only one of the three subspecies of Gasterosteus aculeatus that is marine, scaleless, and fully plated. Fish in this species are anadramous, living in the ocean but entering brackish water or ascending freshwater streams to spawn. The male threespine stickleback not only builds the nest, he also guards it, takes care of the eggs, and protects the newly hatched larvae.

West Coast Sea Nettle
Aquarium of the Pacific, J. Leonard
West Coast Sea Nettle
Cultured at the Aquarium of the Pacific from polyp to adult ephyrae

Species Overview

West coast sea nettles are in the class Scyphozoa, that of the jellies called true jellies. The genus name of sea nettle jellies, Chrysaora, comes from Greek mythology. Chrysaor, reportedly a giant, was the son of Poseidon and Medusa. His name translates as ‘golden falchion’. A falchion was a commonly used curved fighting sword that could cut through armor, a reference to the stinging ability of these jellies. The west coast sea nettle’s species name, fuscescens, means dusky or dark referring to the dusky color of the nettle’s bell.

California Least Tern
Least Tern chick with a parent | Courtesy of USFWS

Species Overview

California Least Terns are in the gull family, Laridae. The smallest of the North American terns, they are migratory seabirds that breed primarily along the California coast. Their swallow-like flight gave them their earlier common name, Sea Sparrows. Their flight is very light, graceful, and buoyant. When it increases in speed, their wing beats are so rapid they cannot be counted, in contrast to the slower ones of larger terns that can be.

Bonnethead Shark
the bonnethead's smooth rounded head | © A. Reitsma, Aquarium of the Pacific
Bonnethead Shark
One of the Aquarium's bonnethead sharks. | © A. Reitsma, Aquarium of the Pacific

Species Overview

Bonnethead sharks are the smallest of the 10 hammerhead shark species. The head shape of these sharks is unique among the species. Unlike most species that have straight heads with notched edges, those of bonnetheads are smooth and rounded between the eyes. These sharks are highly migratory. Although, they are common, coastal inshore sharks, only one unprovoked attack on a human has been recorded.

Snowy Egret
A nesting Snowy Egret. Many altricial chicks to take care of when these eggs hatch. | Courtesy of USFWS
Snowy Egret
Notice the black beak and partially yellow feet. | Courtesy of FermLab

Species Overview

Snowy egrets, wading birds, are medium-sized egrets with a delicate build. They are in the family of herons and storks and are often referred to as medium-sized herons. Like most herons they have long necks, aids in probing in shallow waters for food.

Bufflehead
Male Bufflehead in breeding plumage | Courtesy of USFWS

Species Overview

Buffleheads, migratory birds, are North America’s smallest diving duck. Although small in body size, the relatively large head of these ducks is the source of their common name which is derived from ‘buffalo head’. These very energetic, fast-flying birds spend time in fresh, brackish, and salty waters.

Convict Surgeonfish
© Aquarium of the Pacific
Convict Surgeonfish
© Aquarium of the Pacific

Species Overview

This species is possibly the most numerous in the surgeonfish family, Acanthuridae. It is widely distributed in tropical Pacific and Indo-Pacific waters. The convict part of the common name of these fish results from the resemblance of the black bands on their creamy-white bodies to the striped uniforms once worn by prison convicts. Another common name is convict tang.

King Angelfish
© Aquarium of the Pacific
King Angelfish
© Aquarium of the Pacific

Species Overview

The king angelfish is a beautifully colored, reef associated fish, found in the east Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of California in tropical and some subtropical areas. It is an omnivore, feeding on a large variety of small plants and animals, including planktonic forms. Its favorite food consists of sponges. Females may be very territorial and more aggressive than males and initiate formation of monogamous bonds

Balloonfish (Spiny Porcupine Fish)
© Aquarium of the Pacific

Species Overview

The balloonfish, also known as the spiny porcupinefish and spiny puffer, ranges worldwide in tropical waters and some subtropical and temperate areas. It is a member of the family Diodontidae, the spiny puffers. This fish, along with its close relatives, has the ability to inflate its body by taking water or air into portions of its digestive tract, increasing its diameter size by as much as three times. When the body expands, long spines that normally lie flat on the body are erected, not only adding to the apparent size, but also creating a formidable weaponry to discourage attack by most would-be predators.

Panamic Soldierfish
© Ken Kurtis.

Species Overview

Panamic soldierfishes, small, bright red, big-eyed fish, are fairly common reef inhabitants in their distribution range. Panamic, a part of the common name of this species, means that these fish are found in a geographic province of the eastern Pacific encompassing central Baja California to northern Peru. The second part of their common name comes from the swimming behavior of soldierfishes. They are frequently seen swimming in nicely organized schools that are said to resemble military formations.

Wedge-tail Triggerfish
Humu humu nuku nuku apua ‘a, the fish with the pig-nosed face | Oyd under Creative Commons Attribution 2.5

Species Overview

The official state fish of Hawaii, the easily identified wedge-tail triggerfish is quite commonly seen in many other areas of its distribution. Besides its beautifully bright colors and perfect geometric markings, its greatest claim to fame is probably its official Hawaiian name, humu humu nuku nuku apua ‘a, which, according to Hawaiians, is longer than the fish itself. Not easy to learn and difficult to remember, it is said that native Hawaiians identify non-islanders by asking them to say the name. If not readily forthcoming, it leaves the persons background in question. Translation of the name to English defines the animal as the “fish with the pig-nosed face”. It is supported by the grunting noise the species may make when removed from the water.

California Sea Lion
A salute from Parker | ©: Aquarium of the Pacific, H. Ryono
California Sea Lion
Miller, our 30 year-old patriarch (as of 2010). | ©: Aquarium of the Pacific, R. Riggs

Species Overview

The group of marine mammals called pinnipeds is made up of three closely related families: Otariidae (‘eared’ seals), the family to which California sea lions belong; Phocidae (‘true’ seals); and Odobenidae (walrus). The term “pinniped” is derived from the Latin “pinna”, meaning winged, and “ped”, meaning foot, referring to the appearance of the flippers of these families.

The genus name, Zalophus, is derived from the Greek prefix “za” and “lophos” for “crest”, referring to the large sagittal crest on the skull of a mature male sea lion. There are three subspecies in the genus Zalopus based on geographic location and some morphological differences: California sea lion, Zalopus californianus; Galapagos sea lion, Z.wollebaeki; and the Japanese sea lion Z. japonicus , which is presumed to be extinct.

Weedy Seadragon
Seadragons like temperate water so the water in their habitat is colder than that in the rest of the Tropical Pacific Gallery exhibits. | Aquarium of the Pacific, B.Gray

Species Overview

Weedy seadragons are found only in Australian coastal waters where they are most commonly found in a thin strip of shallow water along the coastline. Although they appear to be seaweed when drifting in the water column almost motionless, weedy seadragons are actually bony fish. They are related to seahorses, pipefish, and seamoths.

Clown Anemonefish
Compare the clown anemonefish to the false clown by clicking here. | Public domain per Haplochromis

Species Overview

The clown anemonefish is also called the clownfish, true clownfish, and orange clownfish. Like other anemonefish, it has a symbiotic relationship with selected sea anemones that provide its habitat.

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Species In-Depth | Print full entry

At the Aquarium

Due to the space requirements for these intelligent and dynamic animals, we do not exhibit live whales or dolphins. Orcas (killer whales) are featured in Whales: a Journey with Giants (a large-scale multimedia presentation), signage and in the Passport, a visitor’s guide.

Geographic Distribution

Mostly sporadic in all regions of the world ocean, from tropical to temperate zones to the edge of polar ice packs. Small concentrations off Antarctica, northern Japan, Iceland, Norway, Alaska, Washington, and British Columbia.

Habitat

Although found in tropical and offshore waters, orcas prefer cooler coastal waters no more than 800 km (497 mi) from major continents. Resident pods have established territories with fairly predictable patterns of movements within their territories as they follow prey. They are known to spend time in brackish water and even rivers. Transients do not establish territories nor do they move predictably. Offshore orcas are seldom in protected inshore waters, spending most of their time in the open ocean on the continental shelf.

Physical Characteristics

Orcas have a stout body that is tapered at both ends (fusiform). They have a round blunt head and lack the distinctive beak that dolphins usually have. The mouth line is straight. They have large broad, rounded, and paddle-shaped pectoral fins (flippers) that can be 1.8 m (6 ft) long and 0.9 m (3 ft) wide. Their flukes have a distinct notch in the center, slightly concave trailing edges, and may have pointed tips.

These whales differ in the shape of their dorsal fin and saddlepatch. The tip of the dorsal fin of resident females and immature males is rounded ending in a sharp corner. The leading edge tends to be slightly curved back. That of mature males is straight and more triangular in shape. The saddlepatch of residents is either uniform in color, or may be open containing varying amounts of black pigment. Typically, transients have a fin that has a more pointed tip (closely resembling that of a shark). There is often a bulge at the midpoint of the trailing edge. Their uniformly gray saddlepatch is quite large and never open. Offshore orcas have a dorsal fin that is continually rounded over the entire tip and a saddlepatch that is often open.

The black and white coloration of orcas is both striking and distinctive. Their jet-black body has sharply defined white areas on the belly, flanks, chin, and throat. They have oval white eyepatches behind and above each eye. Their flippers and fins are usually all black while the underside of their tail flukes is white. There is a prominent usually grayish saddlepatch behind the dorsal fin.

Size

Male orcas are 5.8-6.7 m (19 to 22 ft) in length and weigh 3628 to 5442 kg (8000 to 12,000 lb). The smaller females are 4.9-5.8 m (16 to 19 ft) long and weigh 1360 to 3628 kg (3000 to 8000 lb). The dorsal fin of males, especially older ones, can be as high as 1.8 m (6 ft) whereas that of females are much shorter, 0.9-1.2 m (3-4 ft). The pectoral fins and flukes of males are also larger than those of females.

Diet and Feeding

These dolphins have 40 to 56 conical-shaped teeth that curve slightly backward and inward. Each tooth is about 7.6 cm (3 in) long. They swallow smaller prey whole and use their interlocking upper and lower teeth to grip larger items in order to tear them into pieces small enough to swallow. Unlike the baseball-sized throat of baleen whales, this toothed whale’s throat is large enough to swallow small seals whole. They use their excellent above and below water eyesight to find prey. In addition, residents and offshore orcas use echolocation to search for a meal.

Like other toothed whales, orcas have a fat-filled organ called a melon which acts like a lens to focus sounds in front of the whale. The whale sends out high-pitched rapid clicks (as many as several hundred per second) that are produced in nasal sacs behind its blowhole and listens for echoes to come back as they bounce off of objects such as prey. The stealthy transients do not echolocate when hunting. They use passive listening to locate prey, staying mostly silent to avoid being heard by their intended meal. However, they vocalize with whistles, squeals, and squeaks during the attack and directly after the kill.

Cooperative hunting is common among all populations, but food preferences are not. Resident orcas are fish-eaters with a strong preference for salmon, timing their movements within their territories with salmon runs. Transients hunt a wide range of prey. They have a preference for harbor seals, but also eat California and Steller sea lions, Dall’s porpoise, dolphins, small whales (narwhal, beluga, gray whale calves), squid, sharks including the great white, seabirds, and even moose and deer encountered swimming across narrow channels. In recent years because of the decline in seals and sea lions in parts of Alaska, they have begun to prey on sea otters. Offshore orcas are believed to be primarily fish and squid eaters but details about their diet are sketchy. Researchers believe that they may also prey on sharks because of the much greater number of scars and nicks on their bodies than on other populations.

Reproduction

Females become sexually mature at 12 to 16 years of age and males at about 10 to 17. Although the territories of populations overlap, they do not interbreed. Based on DNA evidence, males almost always mate with females outside of their pods reducing the risk of inbreeding. In the wild females calve about every five years and stop reproducing when they are 40 years old. The gestation period is usually about 17 months, the longest of all known cetaceans. Newborn calves are 2.1 to 2.5 m (7-8 ft) in length and weigh 136 to 181 kg (300 to 400 lb). The mortality rate from birth to six months is 37 to 50%. Why it is so high is unknown.

A calf’s upper teeth start erupting at two to three months of age at which time they start taking solid food such as fish from the mother. The lower teeth erupt at four months, however, they continue to nurse until they are one to two years old. Their first sounds are high pitched screams and at two months they begin to vocalize with pulsed calls believed to be learned from the mother. They learn foraging skills and social behaviors from pod members.

Behavior

Resident orcas indulge in a number of social behaviors very similar in type and number to that of humpbacks: breaching, flipper slapping, tail lobbing, and splashing at the surface. They also chase, head stand, and play with objects such as kelp and sea jellies. While socializing, they are especially vocal emitting a wide range of whistles and calls seldom heard at other times. Transients are not as acrobatic.

These dolphins are believed to be one of the fastest swimming marine mammals. They cruise at 3.2-9.7 kph (2-6 mph) but can accelerate to 48 kph (30 mph) for short bursts.

Preparing to dive, they take 2-5 breaths at 5-10 second intervals and dive for 10 to 15 seconds. After 3-5 short dives, they take a longer dive that lasts for 1-4 minutes.

Adaptation

Orcas have a complex social structure of subpods, pods, clans, communities, and herds. The pods or groups are usually made up of several females, calves, and one to two males. There may or may not be juveniles in the pod. Each pod produces a specific number and type of calls, a dialect. Some of the calls are unique to the pod while others are shared and form the basis for a language group called a clan.

The resident pods, numbering 5 to 50 individuals, are matrilineal, that is, there is a family structure of a mother and her sons and daughters who usually remain with her for life and the several generations travel together. Transients travel in small loose groups of two to six individuals, usually in close proximity. The groups are more fluid and often contain unrelated females with offspring that do not remain with their mothers. Researchers believe the transient groups form as temporary foraging packs. It has been determined that there are 30 to 60 whales in offshore groups but the social structure is still being studied.

Longevity

The maximum lifespan of female orcas in the wild is believed to be 80 to 90 years with an average of 63 years. Males have a shorter maximum lifespan of 50 to 60 years, averaging 36. Orcas in protected environments do not live as long.

Conservation

Native peoples of coastal regions regarded orcas, not with hostility, but with awe and respect. They figured prominently (and still do) in their storytelling and art as evidenced by the colorful figures portrayed on totem poles. Some considered them to be the custodians of the sea from which they would give people gifts of strength, food, and health. On the other hand they were regarded by non-natives as blood thirsty, voracious predators extremely dangerous to humans. As late as 1973, the U.S. Navy’s diving manuals described orcas as extremely ferocious warning that they “will attack human beings at every opportunity.” Now we know that the only attacks on humans have been those made on trainers in theme parks where the animals perform. In British Columbia and Norway, orcas were shot on sight because they were believed to compete with humans for herring and salmon. Since the yield of oil from an orca was only 4.4-5.6 barrels in contrast to the 30 to 45 barrels from a sperm whale, orcas were not a target of whalers.

As top predators in their ecosytems, orcas have no natural predators. They are, however, faced with man-made threats. A major one is toxic pollution from organochlorides such as PCBs, DDT, and dioxins. The level of PCBs in both the southern and northern resident populations measures 100 parts per million, far greater than the danger level estimate of 17 parts per million for negative impacts on the immune and reproductive systems of harbor seals. Other threats include declining prey availability, especially of salmon, caused by overfishing and habitat loss, perception by members of the fishing industry that orcas are the reason for the declines of fish, impacts of noise pollution from increasing shipping and sonar testing by the military, entanglement in fishing gear, and effects of growing recreational and commercial whale watching boats, a concern not shared by all researchers but being studied.

The IWC classifies orcas as small cetaceans and does not manage them except for prohibiting commercial whaling. Under Canada’s Species at Risk Act, the southern residents are listed as endangered, northern residents and transients as threatened, and the offshore as species of special concern. In the United States orcas are protected under the MMPA and the southern resident population has recently been listed as threatened under the ESA.

Amazing Facts

Who’s on top? Orcas use acrobatic and other behaviors to communicate dominance and position in their social groups. They slap their tail against the water, butt heads, snap jaws, bite, tooth-scratch, and engage in other vigorous postures and gestures. Tooth scratches may be deep enough to leave permanent scars. Mothers discipline their calves by corralling them and by tooth-scratching.

No need for hearing aids: Orcas have exceptional hearing ability. Humans perceive sound in a range of 0.02-17 kHz whereas orcas can hear in a range of 0.5 to 125 kHz. Their sound perception is believed to be through their fat-filled lower jaw and also the soft tissue and bone surrounded the ear. The jawbone conducts sound waves through the jaw to the middle ear, inner ear, and then to hearing centers in the brain via auditory nerves.

Rubbing beaches: Northern resident orcas exhibit a behavior not shown by the southern residents. They have identified a number of pebble-strewn shallow waters and beaches where they swim into the very shallow waters, even beaching themselves, to rub their body against the pebbles, often for a long period. The reason for this unique to the northern residents behavior is unknown.

Additional Images

Killer Whale (orca)