There may be a totally non-violent reason that an orca near Iceland was spotted caring for a pilot whale calf. But given what we know of orcas—a species infamous for breaking the spines of dolphins and eating the livers of unlucky great white sharks—you’ll forgive us for being a little suspicious.
Researchers studying orcas off the western coast of Iceland spotted one apparently raising a pilot whale calf as its own offspring. That’s a little weird. Pilot whales are ordinarily prey for the larger cetaceans, which are social, intelligent apex predators in the oceans.
But there it was: a calf seemingly being shepherded by a female orca in a group of three, even receiving instructions from the orcas on where to swim in their formation. The researchers’ findings are published in the Canadian Journal of Zoology.
The unusual group of cetaceans was spotted in August 2021 off West Iceland’s Snæfellsnes Peninsula. The group included two adult females, nicknamed Dragonfly and Sædís, and an adult male called Zale. The trio was first seen in 2012, at which time they were already adults. But by summer 2021, Sædís had a calf—apparently an emaciated newborn pilot whale, according to the researchers. Sædís wasn’t producing milk, so the pilot whale did not have a source of nutrition.
The next time the orca group was seen was last March, and the pilot whale calf was not with them; the calf was also absent in a July 2022 sighting of the killer whale trio.
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The researchers say the pilot whale’s association with the orcas could be an example of alloparental care, in which animals care for non-descendent young. Dolphins have been observed caring for whale calves and newborn dolphins in the same way.
But dolphins aren’t as ferocious as orcas; in fact, orcas hunt dolphins by ramming into them and breaking their spines. They also dine on the tongues of blue whales, the largest animal ever known, and even hunt great white sharks to sup on their livers, leaving the rest of the carcass to rot.
In other words, it’s very possible that the whale calf was simply stolen by Sædís the orca. Maybe as a little pet or to fill some sort of parental void. Maybe as a meal to-go.
Because the calf wasn’t seen in recent sightings of the pod, and given its emaciated state, it seems likely it’s no longer with us. Alas, nature is hardcore—especially when orcas are involved.
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