A female orca was captured on camera caring for a baby pilot whale in the first ever known case of its kind.
The orca was pictured swimming alongside and actively looking after the long-finned whale calf in western Iceland.
The images are the first time scientists have ever documented an orca nurturing a baby of another species.
The photos and footage of the two animals were taken in August 2021. However, the images of this extraordinarily rare occurrence were only revealed in a study published in the Canadian Journal of Zoology earlier this month.
According to the paper, scientists observed that the female orca was not simply accompanying the baby pilot whale but was actively caring for it.
“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,” lead author Marie Mrusczok tells 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.”
Two other orcas, possibly from the female’s pod, were also present, but no other pilot whales were seen — which is abnormal because pilot whales also travel in pods.
Adoption or Abduction?
The orca’s protection of the pilot whale calf suggests that the relationship between the two species is more complex than scientists previously believed.
Newsweek reports that the orca had never had a calf of her own and she may have “adopted the pilot whale as a substitute.
Pilot whales and orcas both have close-knit families in the wild, meaning their mother-calf relationships are similar. The study says that this could further explain the remarkable behavior between the pair.
According to the paper, the same female orca was seen interacting with a pod of long-finned pilot whales about a year later, but the calf could not be seen.
Scientists believe that the ensuing interactions between the orca and a pod of long-finned pilot whales may be an active effort to obtain another calf.
However, Elizabeth Zwamborn, another author of the study, says that there is a possibility that the incident may be a case of killer whale abduction rather than a heartwarming maternal relationship.
“Well, there are two possibilities,” Zwamborn tells the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s Maritime Noon One.
“One is that she came across this orphan pilot whale calf that wasn’t doing well, and that’s the story we all think about, right? This lovely warm adoption story.
“But there’s also a decent chance that she actually abducted this calf from a group of pilot whales. Off Iceland, there’s been quite the interaction between both species and oftentimes pilot whales are seen chasing the killer whales.”
In western Iceland, pilot whales and orcas inhabit the same waters several times during the year. However, this is the first time the two species have been documented behaving in this way.
For more information, go to “First account of apparent alloparental care of a long-finned pilot whale calf (Globicephala melas) by a female killer whale” published in the Canadian Journal of Zoology.
Image credits: All photos sourced via Orca Guardians Iceland.