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Best Student Paper 2024: Killer whales that once cooperatively hunted whales with whalers are likely extinct

About the author, our 2024 Best Student Paper Awardee:

Isabella M. Reeves is a PhD Candidate in evolutionary ecology based at Flinders University. Her thesis focuses on using genomic and biochemical tools to understand how the evolution of populations has affected their behavior and ecology, with a focus on killer whales.

Globally, human-wildlife cooperative relationships are rare, documented in only a few species such as wolves, greater honeyguides, and dolphins (Cram 2022). One of the most well-known examples is killer whales in Australia. Until the early 20th century Turembulerrer (Twofold Bay) in Eden on the eastern coast of Australia was known for a legendary hunting relationship between mankind and killer whales – a phenomenon that is still unprecedented around the world (Figure 1). 

Figure 1: Whaleboat in action with killer whale alongside in Eden, Twofold Bay. Image by Charles E. Wellings, C. 1910s / 20s provided by Eden Killer Whale Museum

Killer whales cooperatively hunted baleen whales with whalers in Twofold Bay, first recorded in 1844, with this relationship lasting nearly a century. Records indicate that killer whales assisted in herding and subduing baleen whales, while whalers followed and harpooned the prey. After a baleen whale was killed, whalers would attach a marker buoy and anchor to prevent drift for 24 to 48 hours. Killer whales would consume the lips and tongue of the carcass before whalers collected it for processing- this was deemed “Law of the Tongue”. This interaction, not only served as a regular part of the killer whale diet but fueled a prosperous local whaling industry (see Clode 2012). By 1928, baleen whale processing ceased, and most killer whales had departed, leaving only Old Tom, who was found stranded on a beach in 1930 and now his skeleton is preserved in the Eden Killer Whale Museum. Despite the end of this era in Eden, questions have remained on whether his family still were alive today, or whether they were now extinct- our latest research tackles this. 

In efforts to decolonize this aspect of Australian history, we partnered with Steven Holmes, a Thaua Traditional Custodian and direct descendant of Thaua royalty. Steven’s family played a significant role alongside white whalers during the commercialized whaling era in Eden. Steven shared insights revealing the profound connection between the Thaua people and the killer whales (beowas), deeply intertwined with their Dreaming and reliance on the ocean for sustenance. He explained the belief that when a Thaua member passes away, they are reincarnated as killer whales, meaning man or whale they were one mob.

Prior to colonization, the Thaua had already established a mutualistic relationship with killer whales, employing specialized strategies both onshore and in the water, including singing as a cue. This relationship predates European colonization and is the origin of the “Law of the Tongue.” European whalers capitalized on this bond, which became foundational to their whaling industry, with First Nation whalers playing a vital role due to their sought-after skills and knowledge. 

Figure 2: Locations of Old Tom and the populations analyzed for genetic similarity. Infographic by Emma Luck

In an attempt to reveal the origin and fate of Old Tom, we drilled into his teeth his hopes of retrieving DNA. We used ancient DNA methods, the same used for Neanderthal and mammoths to give it the best chance of success. We compared Old Tom to a global dataset of killer whales, with his genome showing the greatest similarity to New Zealand killer whales, sharing a most recent common ancestor with killer whales from the North Pacific, North Atlantic, and Australasia (Figure 2).

Despite Old Tom being most like the New Zealand genome, his DNA remains relatively distinct from killer whale populations today which suggests that this remarkable family likely has gone extinct. Since the disappearance of these famous killer whales in Eden, there have only been a handful of sightings. Why they left has been heavily debated, from depleted whale stocks to a breach of the law of the tongue.

While they may be gone, their legacies remain alive in the Thaua people and local communities.


Clode, D., 2011. Killers in Eden: the story of a rare partnership between men and killer whales. Museum Victoria.

Cram, D.L., van der Wal, J.E., Uomini, N., Cantor, M., Afan, A.I., Attwood, M.C., Amphaeris, J., Balasani, F., Blair, C.J., Bronstein, J.L. and Buanachique, I.O., 2022. The ecology and evolution of humanwildlife cooperation. People and Nature4(4), pp.841-855.

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