Orca Cares For Pilot Whale Calf in Never Before Seen Behavior

Scientists studying orcas off the west coast of Iceland observed an adult orca caring for a juvenile long-finned pilot whale — a unique behavior for both species.

The researchers published their account of the behavior on Feb. 17, in the Canadian Journal of Zoology. A female orca known as Sædis was swimming alongside the pilot whale calf and two other pod members.

No other pilot whales were in the vicinity. The relative positions of the adult orca and pilot whale calf clued the researchers into the special relationship.

“The orca was swimming with the pilot whale calf in the echelon position, which means the calf was swimming right behind the pectoral fin of the orca,” Marie Mrusczok, the lead author of the paper, told Newsweek. “The echelon position allows a calf to make fewer tail-fluke movements than when swimming on its own and overcome physical limitations during high-speed travel — in other words, the calf is ‘carried’ by the pressure wave created by the adult’s larger body.”

This specific positioning indicates a maternal relationship, according to Elizabeth Zwamborn, a researcher at Dalhousie University who spoke to Halifax City News.

Orcas and long-finned pilot whales regularly interact, specifically during predation events, Newsweek reported. But the observation of Sædis caring for a pilot whale calf marks the first time scientists have directly witnessed maternal behavior between the two species.

According to the study, Sædis has not had a calf of her own and was seen interacting with another pod of long-finned pilot whales later in the year. The previously spotted calf was not in evidence during that interaction.

Orcas, the largest member of the dolphin family, are known for being attentive mothers.

Andrew Marshall

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