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Whoa, Killer Whales Go Through Menopause?

The Cut logo The Cut 12/11/2019 Amanda Arnold
a flock of seagulls flying over a body of water: Killer whale. sethakan/Getty Images © sethakan/Getty Images Killer whale. sethakan/Getty Images

This afternoon, I found myself drawn to a wholesome headline about one of the sea’s most majestic creatures: “Yes, Killer Whales Benefit From Grandmotherly Love Too,” the New York Times proclaims. The story discusses recent findings that grandmother killer whales can help improve their grandcalves’ chances of survival. But what I will take away from the story is not the study’s conclusion, but a detail that struck me while reading the following paragraph:

The findings may shed light on an enduring mystery: why some whale species live for years after they go through menopause and stop reproducing. The study showed that, by stopping reproduction, grandmother killer whales avoided conflict with their reproducing offspring and helped their grandcalves find enough to eat when salmon stocks dwindled.

I’m no whale expert, but I would say I’m more knowledgeable than average about the gargantuan sea mammals. But today is the day that I learned that aging female whales go through menopause. Or, well, killer whales. According to the research I conducted approximately three seconds after learning this fact, scientists know of only five species that go through menopause: short-finned pilot whales, beluga whales, narwhals, killer whales, and humans. While scientists aren’t exactly sure why female killer whales’ ovaries stop producing estrogen and progesterone, they have a few theories, the most recent of which is a little dark: Some scientists believe that older female whales lose the ability to procreate once their daughters start having family to reduce competition for food to feed the infants.

Anyway, how fascinating. I cannot wait to shout this fact at uninterested acquaintances at the 500 upcoming holiday parties I must attend. I am, however, left with a few questions about whale menopause. For example, do they get hot flashes? If any whale experts have any answers for me, please reach out immediately. My DMs are open.

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