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

Humpback whales are engaging in unusual interspecies helping behavior, and scientists aren’t sure why.

[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.

Humpback
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

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