Scientists have long puzzled over why humpback whales tend to protect different sea creatures from being preyed on by killer whales. To be accurate, the humpbacks have been witnessed saving marine mammals from orca attacks for a total of 115 times over the years, indicating that such protective behavior might be inherent in them.
As part of a new study, an international team of researchers has undertaken a investigation of this fascinating humpback behavior. Speaking about the project, Robert Pitman, the team’s leader and a scientist from the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service, explained:
Anecdotes have been passed down for centuries about dolphins at sea coming to the aid of distressed conspecifics [creatures of the same species], as well as other species, including humans. However, more recent observations, including popular accounts and videos posted on the internet, suggest that a baleen whale – the humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) – also approaches marine vertebrates in distress, most notably, when they are being attacked by killer whales (Orcinus orca).
One such instance was when a humpback whale rescued a lone sea, trapped on a small ice sheet somewhere near Antarctica, from a herd of hunting killer whaes back in 2009. The prey, which had been pushed off the ice, was then raised and essentially saved by a giant humpback lurking underneath. While some have dismissed the incredible incident as coincidence, researchers later found out that the humpback had actually turned upside down, bringing its belly above the water.
This, according to Pitman, suggests that the humpback whales may have some kind of innate knowledge regarding how to go about rescuing other creatures. For the project, the team has been trying to study this particular behavior and where it actually comes from. Recently published in the Marine Mammal Science journal, the research states:
More often, though, humpbacks approached MEKWs (mammal-eating killer whales) that were attacking prey species that were clearly not humpbacks (e.g. a grey whale calf with its mother, a seal hauled out on an ice floe, a sunfish), and although the humpbacks faced little risk of serious injury, they also gained no obvious benefits for their time and energy spent.
Although nothing has been proven, the scientists are of the opinion that this behavior could stem from the fact that humpback calves are often hunted by killer whales. This in turn makes the adults go out of their way to save other sea animals, fueled by a sense of revenge, altruism or something similar. The researchers go on to explicate:
As is evident above, most reports describing humpback interactions with MEKWs have emphasized humpback defensive behaviors, but there is a growing body of evidence to suggest that humpback anti-predator behavior may have evolved beyond just basic defense, possibly including humpbacks deliberately interfering when MEKWs are attacking other humpbacks and even other species.
So far, the team has examined all recorded encounters of humpback whales with killer whales. While a lot of research is yet to be conducted, the scientists believe that the findings could help unravel the complexities of the humpback’s emotional processing.