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York University researchers to examine the mystery of the menopausal killer whales
3:26pm Friday 18th October 2013 in News
MENOPAUSAL killer whales may live beyond the point of reproduction so they can help “raise the grandchildren," according to research.
Orcas are one of just three species on the planet – along with humans and pilot whales – that experience the phenomenon.
And a £500,000 study, funded by the Natural Environment Research Council and led by the University of York, is to examine the mystery.
Lead investigator Dr Dan Franks from the department of biology, said: “The researchers suspect that the menopause, which the whales experience in their 30s or 40s, is related to the animals’ social structure.”
He added: “Killer whales live in close-knit social groups and sons and daughters stay with their family their entire lives.”
Scientists still do not know why these three species alone evolved with the unusual menopausal trait which sees them stop reproducing a third of the way through their lives and instead adopt the sociable role of protecting their families.
Preliminary research suggests that having a female around who no longer reproduces greatly increases the chances of children and grandchildren surviving.
Dr Franks explained: “Older females take a leadership role in the social group and have more knowledge on where and when food is available.”
“I wouldn’t be surprised if through this project we learn more about the evolution of human menopause.
"Much of what we’re proposing is inspired by research on human menopause, and we expect our research to lead to new ideas that will allow us to ask more questions about human evolution.”
For further information, visit: york.ac.uk/yccsa/
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