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A whale of a time 

What can whales teach us about getting ‘over the hump’? We’ve done a deep dive into menopause ahead of Darcey Steinke’s All About Women talk ‘Hot Flush Living’.

Rebecca Munro

Menopause is an unavoidable fact of life for anyone with ovaries. But why does our reproductive ability wind down in mid-life despite having decades of our lives left to live?

Science doesn’t exactly have all the answers, but one thing we do know is that killer whales (also known as orcas) are one of the few mammals other than humans that go through menopause, providing an unexpected opportunity for researchers to delve into the evolutionary mystery that is ‘the change’. Let’s dive right in.

Killer whales

Most animals reproduce right up until they die, making the most of their time on the planet by fulfilling their evolutionary impulse to pass their genes to the next generation.

Female killer whales on the other hand stop giving birth between 30 and 40 years of age, going on to live long and meaningful post-menopausal lives as leaders in their matriarchal family groups, often reaching the age of 90 or above in the wild.

A menopausal orca living its best life. Image: Naturaliste Charters.

The “granny effect”

One of the first theories to account for the evolution of menopause in both whales and humans was the ‘grandmother hypothesis’, developed in the 1960s. This theory suggests that older females are programmed to close down their reproductive capabilities so that they can devote themselves exclusively to the rearing of grandchildren, thus promoting their genetic legacy into the future. While it’s hard not to be convinced that many of today’s grandmothers living rich, fulfilling lives view caring for their grandchildren as their sole purpose in life, from an evolutionary perspective it does make sense.

George C. Williams, one of the first to posit the 'Grandmother Hypothesis' and leading authority on evolutionary biology and neckbeards.

“This reproductive conflict between female generations is now seen a critical piece of the puzzle in the evolution of menopause.”

Reproductive conflict

This theory is a little darker. Recent research undertaken by a team of whale researchers from Exeter University suggests that the real evolutionary explanation for menopause is much more complex than previously believed.

The sons and daughters of killer whales remain living with their mothers whilst mating with whales in other families, then returning home to raise their young. This close family structure and the long life span of the species means that at some point in the senior mother’s life, she’s likely to birth calves at the same time as one or more of her daughters in the same pod, potentially leading to conflict over resources. Older mother whales also suffer much higher costs when competing to reproduce with younger mothers, with the offspring of older mothers 1.7 times more likely to die than younger ones.

This reproductive conflict between female generations is now seen a critical piece of the puzzle in the evolution of menopause. 

Darcey Steinke, author of 'Flash Count Diary: Menopause and the Vindication of Natural Life'. Image: Niqui Carter.

What on earth do whales have to do with All About Women?

Darcey Steinke, author of Flash Count Diary, was astounded to discover what she had in common with ageing female orcas when going through her own uneasy menopausal transformation.

In her writing, Steinke details her kinship with Lolita, a killer whale thought to be aged in her mid-50’s who has been kept in captivity since 1970 in a Miami amusement park. It’s heartbreaking stuff, especially when you consider that whales have spindle cells in their brains – the cells linked to empathy. #FreeLolita.

Steinke’s exploration of her own journey through menopause and the oppressive cultural silence that surrounds it is drawn in parallel to the physical oppression of her long-distance middle-aged companion Lolita. A killer whale as a sort of menopausal spirit guide. Who knew?

Darcey Steinke will speak as part of All About Women, where she'll lead a raw, honest and intelligent exploration of the prejudice and power in this significant time in women's lives. Book tickets here.

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