Why Are Humpback Whales Going Out of Their Way to Save Other Species?

[DIGEST: Christian Science Monitor, National Geographic, Tech Times]

A seal sits atop an Antarctic ice floe as orcas circle in for the kill. Suddenly, a humpback whale swoops in, places the seal on its belly and out of danger.

A pod of orcas targets a gray whale and kill the whale’s calf. As the orcas attempt to feast, 16 humpback whales keep vigil, spending over six hours loudly and vigorously preventing the orcas from eating their kill.


Over the past 62 years, marine biologists have observed humpback whales performing 115 similar acts of mercy, according to a study published last month in Marine Mammal Science. Of these interactions, 89 percent of them involved their rescue of other species, including sea lions, harbor seals, and even sunfish. The humpbacks’ rescue missions continued unabated.

While it is clear these are not isolated events, the explanation for this behavior is less clear.

Credit: Source.

There is rarely much benefit to protecting another species. This may explain why humpback whales are the only cetacean that deliberately approaches attacking killer whales and drives them off. Yet given that animals typically come to the aid of other species only when it benefits them, scientists are attempting to arrive at non-altruistic explanations for the whales’ seemingly incongruous behavior.

For instance, orcas have been known to attack humpbacks when they are young, so some scientists have suggested that this rescuing behavior may have evolved as a way to protect

their young. Yet this doesn’t address the 89 percent of other times when the humpback whales continue to defend a creature even after it becomes clear it is not one of their own.    

As an alternate theory, let’s not rule out revenge! Alisa Schulman-Janiger, a whale researcher with the California Killer Whale Project, noted that not all humpbacks interfere with hunts, and many of those that do are marked with scars from their run-ins with orcas as calves.  

Or the whales may be responding to auditory calls made by the killer whales when they are hunting. The humpbacks are unable to identify the species under attack until they have invested the energy to come in for the rescue—sometimes from distances of up to 2 kilometers away, the study noted.  

Credit: Source.

There could be another explanation, however: altruism. Although it is uncommon in the animal kingdom: humpbacks could be engaging in interspecies—or interspecific—altruistic behaviors. As the researchers reported: “Interspecific altruism, even if unintentional, could not be ruled out.”

“Although this behavior is very interesting, I don’t find it completely surprising that a cetacean would intervene to help a member of another species,” said Lori Marino, an expert in cetacean intelligence and president of the Whale Sanctuary Project. Marino notes that humpbacks are intelligent problem solvers and communicators which are “attributes of those of a species with a highly developed degree of general intelligence capable of empathic responses.”

Further research is required to find out the exact reason for the humpback whales’ unusual behavior. But those hoping to find true altruism in the humpback whales’ behavior may be disappointed. For the most part, said Robert Pitman, lead author of the study, animals tend to act in their own best interest. “As biologists,” he said, “that is where we should start our search for explanations.”

CNN video/Win McNamee/Getty Images

Maine's Democratic primary is slated for March 3.

The vote will determine who faces off against Senator Susan Collins in November.

Keep reading...
ABC/The View

President Donald Trump has made no effort to keep his thoughts on the trial of his former advisor, Roger Stone, a secret.

Stone was convicted of lying to Congress, obstructing justice, and threatening a witness last year. When prosecutors recommended a seven to nine year prison sentence, Trump fumed on Twitter and the Justice Department subsequently overrode the opinion of its prosecutors, who resigned in response.

Today, Stone was sentenced to 40 months in prison for his crimes, leading everyone to ask: Will Trump pardon one of his most vocal allies?

Keep reading...
Chris Graythen/Getty Images // Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

With 2.4 billion active users, Facebook has become a breeding ground for disinformation. Misleading or outright false allegations played an unignorable part of the assault on the 2016 election and a number of lawmakers say Facebook isn't doing enough to curtail fake news ahead of 2020.

Now a recent Washington Post report detailing Facebook's response to fake news pages after President Donald Trump's shocking victory in 2016 is raising even more concerns.

Keep reading...
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Republicans often claim their party has the upper hand with voters when it comes to fiscal responsibility. When a Democrat is in office, one of the chief complaints you can count on from Republican lawmakers is that the President is ballooning the deficit, or sending the federal debt skyward.

This hasn't quite been the case when it's a Republican President occupying the White House.

Keep reading...
NBC News

Contenders for the 2020 Democratic nomination debated in Las Vegas, Nevada on Tuesday ahead of the state's primary in the most confrontational debate yet.

Present on the debate stage for the first time was billionaire former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a late entry to the campaign whose advertising blitz helped contribute to his rise in the polls, despite having yet to appear on a primary ballot.

Keep reading...
Leon Neal/Getty Images

President Donald Trump's constant trips to his own golf properties around the globe has been a matter of some controversy since he took office in 2017.

A constant critic of President Barack Obama's golf outings—which unlike Trump Obama did not personally profit from—the 45th POTUS claimed he would be too busy working to ever play golf.

Keep reading...