Two killer whales breaching



Killer whales have a well-developed, acute sense for hearing underwater. A killer whale's brain and nervous system appear physiologically able to process sounds at much higher speeds than humans, most likely because of their echolocation abilities.

Soft tissue and bone conduct sound to a toothed whale's middle and inner ears. In particular, fat lobes in the whale's lower jaw appear to be an adaptation for conveying sound to the ears.

In killer whales, the ear bone complex (ootic capsule) isn't attached to the skull. Ligaments hold each ear bone complex in a cavity outside the skull. This separation of the ear bone complex allows a killer whale to localize sound (directional capacity), which is important for echolocation.

Hearing range

  • Early studies published in 1972 suggested that the hearing range of killer whales was about 0.5 to 31 kHz. More recent studies show killer whales could hear sounds at frequencies as high as 120 kHz. Greatest sensitivity ranged from 18 to 42 kHz with the least sensitivity to frequencies from 60 to 120 kHz.
  • In comparison, the range of hearing of a young, healthy human is 15 to 20,000 Hz (0.015 to 20 kHz). Human speech falls within the frequency band of 100 to 10,000 Hz (0.1 to 10 kHz), with the main, useful voice frequencies within 300 to 3,400 Hz (0.3 to 3.4 kHz). This mainly falls within a killer whale's hearing range.


Killer whale calf 



Killer whale vision is well developed.

The strongly convex (spherical) lens of a marine mammal differs from that of a land mammal.

  • In the eye of a land mammal, the cornea focuses light rays toward the lens, which further focuses the light rays onto the retina. Underwater, the cornea isn't able to adequately focus waves into the lens because the refractive index of water is similar to that of the interior of the eye.
  • The eye of a marine mammal compensates for this lack of refraction at the cornea interface by having a more strongly spherical lens. It is more similar to the lens of a fish's eye than the lens of a land mammal's eye.
  • In air, a marine mammal's eye compensates for the added refraction at the air-cornea interface. At least in bright light, constricting the pupil helps, but it doesn't fully explain how a whale achieves visual acuity in air. Research is ongoing.

DNA analysis of several other species of toothed whales indicated that the eyes of these whales do not develop pigment cells called short-wave-sensitive (S-) cones, which are sensitive to blue light. Researchers theorize that all modern cetaceans, including killer whales, lack these visual pigments and therefore aren't able to discriminate color in the blue wavelengths.


Close up of a killer whale right eye 



Anatomical studies and observations of behavior indicate that a killer whale's sense of touch is well developed. Studies of closely related species (common dolphins, bottlenose dolphins, and false killer whales) suggest that the most sensitive areas are the blowhole region and areas around the eyes and mouth.


In zoological parks, killer whales show strong preferences for specific types of fishes. Overall, however, little is known about a whale's sense of taste.

Behavioral evidence suggests that bottlenose dolphins, a closely related species, can detect three if not all four primary tastes. The way they use their ability to "taste" is unclear.

Scientists are undecided whether dolphins have taste buds like other mammals. Three studies indicated that taste buds may be found within 5 to 8 pits at the back of the tongue. One of those studies found them in young dolphins and not adults. Another study could not trace a nerve supply to the taste buds. Regardless, behavioral studies indicate bottlenose dolphins have some type of chemosensory capacity within the mouth.


Bird's eye view of a killer whale bow 



Olfactory lobes of the brain and olfactory nerves are absent in all toothed whales, indicating that they have no sense of smell.

Being air-breathing mammals that spend a majority of time under water, a sense of smell would go largely unused in killer whales.


Female killer whale and calf