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Killer whales follow postmenopausal leaders

Older females may aid kin survival with salmon hunting savvy

12:00pm, March 5, 2015
group of killer whales

MOVING ON  If traveling killer whales have a postmenopausal female in the lead, her long ecological experience may give them an edge in hunting salmon. 

A clue to the evolution of menopause may come from older female killer whales who often take the lead in salmon hunts.

Among the whales that feast on chinook along the coast of the Pacific Northwest, females past reproductive age often lead hunting parties, especially in fish-sparse years, says Lauren Brent of the University of Exeter in England.

Male killer whales rarely live longer than 50 years, Brent says. But females can live into their 90s. Sharing their long experience in these waters may give their kin an edge in finding food. And that advantage might help push the evolution of long life after menopause, Brent and her colleagues suggest March 5 in Current Biology.

This salmon-hunting population of Orcinus orca whales is among only three kinds of mammals in which females can live long after they stop having babies themselves. The other species with such extreme

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