Why humpback whales protect other species from killer whales

Elin Kelsey

Humpback whales put themselves in danger to save the lives of other species

First-person accounts of animals saving other animals are rare. Robert Pitman, a marine ecologist with the United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, describes a revelatory encounter he witnessed in Antarctica in 2009.

A group of killer whales had washed a Weddell seal they were attacking off of an ice floe. The seal swam frantically toward a pair of humpbacks that had inserted themselves into the action. One of the humpbacks rolled over on its back, and the 63 stone seal was swept onto its chest, between the whale’s massive flippers. When the killer whales moved in closer, the humpback arched its chest, lifting the seal out of the water. And when the seal started slipping off, the humpback, according to Pitman, “gave the seal a gentle nudge with its flipper, back to the middle of its chest. Moments later, the seal scrambled off and swam to the safety of a nearby ice floe.

“That incident convinced me,” he says. “Those humpbacks were doing something we couldn’t explain.”

"A full-grown 30-to-40-ton humpback presents a formidable force against a killer whale"

Pitman started asking other researchers and whale watchers to send him similar accounts. Soon he was poring through observations of 115 encounters between humpbacks and killer whales, recorded over 62 years. “There are some pretty astonishing videos of humpbacks charging killer whales,” he says.

In a 2016 article in Marine Mammal Science, a prominent scientific journal, Pitman and his co-authors describe this behaviour and confirm that such acts of do-gooding are widespread. They have been taking place for a long time and have been seen in locations all over the world. “Now that people know what to look for, especially people out on whale-watching boats, they see it fairly regularly,” Pitman says. “Everybody now understands that this is going on.”

But knowing that something is happening and understanding why it’s happening are two different things. Pitman and his co-authors openly ponder the meaning of these encounters. “Why,” they wrote, “would humpbacks deliberately interfere with attacking killer whales, spending time and energy on a potentially injurious activity, especially when the killer whales… were attacking other species of prey?”

Mammal-eating killer whales attack young humpbacks, so it’s possible that humpbacks mob them as a generalised anti-predator behaviour. It could also be that specific humpbacks, individuals that have survived a killer whale attack when they were young or have lost a calf to killer-whale predation, respond to these traumas by going on the offensive. Sharpe concurs that the severity of a past inter­action could affect an individual.

A full-grown 30-to-40-ton humpback presents a formidable force against a killer whale, which weighs in at a maximum of six tons. Each enormous flipper can measure up to 16ft. Razor-sharp barnacles encrust the knobby leading edge of these appendages, and the whales brandish them with great dexterity. Humpbacks are the only species of baleen whales to carry their own offensive and defensive weaponry. Though killer whales have teeth and are more agile, a blow from the massive humpback tail or flipper could prove fatal.

"Compassion, it turns out, is innate—and definitely not limited to our species"

Intriguingly, humpbacks don’t just stumble upon killer-whale attacks. They race toward them like firefighters into burning buildings. And like those rescue workers, humpbacks don’t know who is in danger until they get there. That’s because the sound that alerts them to an attack isn’t the plaintive voice of the victim. It’s the excited calls of the perpetrators. Pitman believes humpbacks have one simple instruction: “When you hear killer whales attacking, go break it up.”

But humpbacks also display remarkable capacities for subtlety. Sharpe calls them “hypercultural beings,” pointing out how adaptable they are, and good at learning from each other. “Their ability to pick up on social nuance in some ways far surpasses ours,” he says.

When I ask if humpbacks are aware of the suffering of others, which is one of the defining characteristics of compassion, he shares a story of a humpback that died in Hawaii about a decade ago. “The whale had its head down in the water and was no longer breathing,” says Sharpe. “It attracted a lot of unusual interest from other humpbacks—they were approaching it and caressing it.”

Similar behaviour has been observed in mother whales that carry their dead young around with them for hours after they have died, seemingly unwilling to let go.

 

So are humpbacks compassionate? Scientists, Sharpe tells me, shy away from using the same descriptors we use for humans. “What's exciting about humpbacks is that they're directing their behaviour for the benefit of other species,” he says. “But there’s no doubt that there are important differences between human compassion and animal compassion.”

When I pose the same question to Pitman, he agrees. “When a human protects an imperilled individual of another species, we call it compassion. If a humpback whale does so, we call it instinct. But sometimes the distinction isn’t all that clear.”

We now recognise cultural differences within whale, primate, elephant and other species in ways that were unimaginable just decades ago. Studies of animal emotions proliferate, and with them come challenging questions about how to best interpret what looks like compassion and altruism in other species. Just how these acts differ from our own behaviours may be hard to pinpoint.

In an attempt to decipher what qualities of compassion might be uniquely human, I binge-watch videos. I am captivated by footage from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology showing a series of experiments in which a toddler voluntarily totters across a room to assist an apparently clumsy researcher who needs help reaching objects or completing simple tasks. The same basic helpful behaviour happens later in the video, when the experiment is repeated with chimpanzees.

What’s powerful about these tests, according to Felix Warneken, the researcher who led the study and the director of the Social Minds Lab, in the psychology department at the University of Michigan, is that they challenge the strongly held belief that we need to be taught to be altruistic through social norms. His findings indicate otherwise.

Chimpanzees, as well as children too young to have learned the rules of politeness, spontaneously engage in helpful behaviours, even when they have to stop playing or overcome obstacles to do so. The same results have been duplicated with children in Canada, India and Peru, as well as with chimps at the Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary in Uganda and other research centres around the world. The chimps helped people they knew and human strangers, too.

Compassion, it turns out, is innate—and definitely not limited to our species. Human beings and other animals have what Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, calls a “compassionate instinct.”

 

Steve Cole, a genomics researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles reveals an intriguing insight into threat biology that might shed further light on why humpbacks willingly enter into dangerous altercations with killer whales. He explains that scientists used to think that the circuitry for detecting and responding physiologically to threatening circumstances was there to protect the survival of the individual. But that is no longer the case.

Studies in threat neurobiology suggest that those circuits are there to defend the things individuals care about. “This is why you get soldiers running into a hail of gunfire for the country they love,” says Cole. “These people are in adverse environments, but they're acting as if they are in non-threatening environments simply because they are attached to some purpose or cause that’s greater than their own individual well-being.”

I wonder what humpback whales care deeply enough about to actively swim into battle with killer whales. When I ask Pitman, he tells me that, ultimately, it still comes down to selfishly preserving their own kind. He believes that their occasional rescues of humpback calves create a strong enough motive for them to rush in to help, even if it means they end up saving sunfish, sea lions, dolphins and a grey-whale calf every now and then. “It’s the net effect that is working for them,” he explains.

All altruism involves some benefit for the helper, Cole agrees. According to him, it’s biologically difficult to call anything “true altruism” because, as he says, “Helping others almost always doses us with some kind of dopamin­ergic reward.”

Indeed, the happiness we derive when we act on behalf of the greater good shows up in our cells as a better immune response profile, says Cole. While we might feel just as happy eating ice cream as we do volunteering at a beach cleanup, at a cellular level, happiness derived from meaningful service to others is correlated with positive health benefits.

Sharpe says it’s important to step back and appreciate the wonder of the act itself. “It’s easy to get lost in the nuance and come up with high standards of how you interpret this behaviour,” he says. “But the fact is, you have seals on the bellies of humpbacks. You know, it’s just a really cool phenomenon.”

© 2017, Elin Kelsey. From Hakai Magazine (August 15, 2017). hakaimagazine.com


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