SeaWorld has always been known for its orca whales, but the orca whale shows may have to come to a close. On March 7, 2014, Richard Bloom of the California Assembly proposed a bill known as the Orca Welfare and Safety Act. This bill is based on the documentary called “Blackfish,” which is about an orca named Tilikum that killed a trainer at SeaWorld. The bill would prevent the capture of wild orcas in California and possibly change the lives of the orcas currently at SeaWorld. The current argument is, “These creatures are much too large and far too intelligent to be confined in small, concrete tanks for their entire lives.”
To determine whether the argument about orca intelligence is valid, one must look at the intelligence of orcas. Of course, to do so, examining the brain of an orca whale is a good way to start. In a study by scientists at the Department of neuroscience at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, NY, the brains of several cetacean species (which includes the orca) was compared with that of a human. It was discovered that there were neurons in the brains of several cetacean species that matched those of humans. A logical explanation for such an observation could be that behaviors of cetacean species and humans are similar in complexity, and these behaviors led to convergent evolution. In class, it was discussed that convergent evolution is when organisms that are not closely related evolve similar features.
The brains of orcas are actually about four times larger than ours, but this could easily be explained by their body size being much larger than ours. EQ is a way for humans to compare how big an animal’s brain is versus how big it should be. Humans have a brain seven times larger than would be expected. Orcas have a brain that is approximately three times larger than expected, which suggests that perhaps they are pretty intelligent as well. They also have a larger surface to volume ratio than humans, which would suggest that the part of the brain that is able to formulate and bring together information is greater than ours. A recent discovery has also shown that the spindle cell, a cell associated with stronger emotions found in humans and apes, is also found in orcas.
Another ability of orcas that hints at their intelligence is their ability to imitate what they see. An experiment was conducted that involved testing the ability of orcas to imitate. Results included the orcas being able to learn the actual copy command signal in around 20 trials, being able to imitate familiar behaviors within 8 trials, and being able to imitate unfamiliar behaviors within 16 trials. Since orcas are able to imitate humans, it is possible that orcas in captivity learn from each other. For example, at SeaWorld, at least three of the orcas hunt for birds by baiting them with fish. It is possible they learned this hunting technique from each other. If orcas really do learn from each other, then keeping them in captivity may have a negative effect on them, especially if they are relocated. Previously learned imitations may prove futile if they are sent to a new park where the environment is completely different, causing possible aggression.
Overall, it is impossible to say how smart orcas are, and how smart orcas must be in order to be considered “too intelligent” for captivity. However, research conducted so far has suggested that orcas are perhaps relatively intelligent compared to other species in the animal kingdom. SeaWorld has responded to the news saying that they are “deeply committed to the health and wellbeing of all of our animals and killer whales are no exception.” Whether or not the bill will be passed is yet to be determined, but “Blackfish” has clearly made a big splash in California.