Riddle: Why is Grandma Faraway like a Killer Whale?

Blog Post 11

Let’s talk about the Menopause. For most of us grandmas, it will be a dim and distant memory.  Our breeding phase is even longer ago, and some of us feel a little redundant now, especially when our families live independently far away.

But in the paper this week, there was a headline:

New Evidence that Grandmothers were Crucial for Human Evolution’

We are not surprised, we have always felt crucial, haven’t we?  It turns out that by having childless years, this luxury of post menopause built into our lifetime, we are able give our grandchildren extra care. Which animals have the menopause? It may surprise you to know, that it is only us, the killer whale, the short-finned pilot whale, the beluga, and the narwhal. No other mammals have this non breeding time, not the chimpanzee, nor the Orangutan who have to go on breeding until the end of their life, and then their younger offspring are in danger of dying too.

Grandmothers who live beyond their breeding time are able to shoulder part of the burden from the mother. By doing this, she is protecting her own genetic material. This help is called ‘The grandmother effect’ and benefits and protects the family. During my grandmother interviews I have heard stories of grandmothers trying very hard to satisfy family needs. Some have shown a very strong desire to be part of the grandchildren’s lives, even when separated if any more proof of ‘The grandmother effect’ were needed.

The picture below are the choices from one typical grandma in the ‘Grandma Squares game’. I ask each grandma contributor to select from positive and negative quotes about the experience of being a grandmother, this one is typical.


Stromberg, Joseph, New evidence that Grandmothers were Crucial for Human Evolution (Smithsonian Magazine October 23rd 2012)

Balcombe, Kenneth, Grandmother Killer Whales boost the Survival Rate of Calves Centre for Whale Research (Journal proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA. BBC News Dec 2019).

Published by marycane

A PhD student at the Elphinstone Institute Aberdeen Scotland. I am studying the experience of being a contemporary grandmother. In particular I am interested in how those grandmothers, whose family live far away, are passing on their family history.

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