Orcas and Advertising: how to survive.

It was world menopause day on October 18th.  This is one of the newer world days of note.  When my mother went through menopause, she, and of course billions of other women throughout history, at least those that lived long enough, had to manage without a day of commemoration. 

For something that is so material in the lives of 50% of the humans on this planet it is good that it is no longer hidden or shameful, as it once was.  Menopause has been shrouded in mystery and secrecy in most societies, and the understanding of its biological implications is important.  It’s a weird thing to go through, without any kind of roadmap, however inaccurate that map is.  Because, in a similar manner to the process of giving birth, to maternity labour, it is a very individual experience.  And generalisations aren’t that useful.  However, breaking the taboos that have kept women silent on this topic is important and empowering.

The point of menopause biologically used to be assumed to be the “Grandmother theory”.  That it was useful for society to have older women free to look after their grandkids so that the young mothers were free to work, gathering and preparing food (while the men went out to hunt).

There is only one other species other than humans in the world that is known to go through menopause.  Whales, specifically Orcas and Pilot whales.  All other animals continue to reproduce until they die.

Scientists have found that in the case of Orcas the grandmother theory is redundant.  The older matriarch whales do not look after their adorable grand children.  Instead they perform an even more vital and lifesaving role in the Orca community. 

In 2012 a research student, Emma Foster, found some interesting trends in a longitude study of Orcas.  In data that had been collected since the 1970s she found a pattern about the survival of adult male Orcas that was linked to the longevity of their mothers, and had nothing to do with the grandchildren.  If a mother Orca, who has been through menopause, dies, her male offspring is 14 times more likely than his contemporaries to die.  The evidence clearly showed that a mother Orca continues to help her adult offspring.  Professor Darren Croft of the University of Exeter said: “That left a big unanswered question.  Old females (his term not mine!  The older female Orcas I know would prefer to be referred to as in their prime) are keeping their offspring alive, but how?  What is it that they are doing to confer the survival benefit?”

The best answer is that female Orcas in their prime are better at finding salmon – the main diet of the Orca.  Salmon are unpredictable and post-menopausal adult females are much more likely to lead the group to salmon especially when salmon stocks are low.  National Geographic concludes that the longer the Orca females live the more they know and that the same principle applies to humans.  That older members of the tribe have wisdom and experience to impart that can sustain the wider community.

Do we understand this at work?  Be more Orca: learn more from and get advantage from nurturing older individuals.

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