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Empathetic Whales

Empathetic Whales

Author: Hugh Bollinger/Monday, August 8, 2016/Categories: natural history, video, marine mammals, sustainability, adventure

             Humpback Whales, Western Australia  (credit: Wayne Osborn, The Whale Diaries)

Empathy is considered a purely human trait. However, behavorial researchers are beginning to observe this psychological trait in animals as well. Female elephants are known to accept abandoned calves when the mother has been killed by poachers and dolphins have been known to guide humans to shore when lost at sea. It now appears that humpback whales may have a sense of empathy towards other creatures as well.

The massive marine mammals are known to communicate effectively across miles of ocean underwater, gather together in groups and create a chorus of sounds that mimic musical scores, and dive to exceptional depths while still knowing which direction to swim. Behavior research published by Marine Mammal Science shows that humpback whales interfere to protect other species when killer whales (orcas) are attacking them.

Working in Antarctica, marine mammal investigators from the Southwest Fisheries Science Center (part of NOAA) based in California, observed humpback whales harassing orcas, using mobbing behavior, to interfere with attacks on other mammals regardless of the species being attacked. They say the mobbing allowed seals and other non-humpbacks, to escape from the killer whales.

  Orcas attacking whale calf when humpbacks arrive to intervene. (credit: BBC Planet Earth Live)

In their report the researchers state:

"the humpbacks responded to vocalizations of attacked victims without knowing which prey species was targeted and there was no apparent benefit to the humpbacks and continued to interfere when the other species were being attacked. Inter-specific altreuism, even if unintentional, could not be ruled out.

After his Antarctic study, the lead NOAA researcher Robert Pitman posted a request online to learn if others had seen such behavior themselves. He received more than 100 descriptions back of similar encounters, many from commercial whale-watching cruises. The observations included visual media showing humpbacks chasing killer whales, often bellowing, and slapping their tails and fins to freighen away the marine predators.

The topic of whale empathy was the subject of an awarded animation short film, The Song of the Spindle, that considered whale intelligence when it premiered at Sundance:

                               created by: Drew Christie

Animal behavior researchers and artists are onto something significant here and as NOAA investigators concluded:

"this behavior could be an example of ‘spillover’ of an intra-specific pattern into the domain of inter-specific relationships. We suggest that humpback whales providing benefits to other prey species, even if unintentional, should be the focus of future research into the genetic or cultural drivers of inter-specific altruism."

WHB

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