Animal altruism is rarely documented, but a recent research showing that humpback whales often risk their lives to save smaller marine animals from orca attacks has puzzled scientists.
The new study shows that humpbacks not only protect their halves, they have been often spotted saving seals, sea lions and porpoises from impending doom. And scientists are shocked by how versatile humpbacks are since they can switch mood from very aggressive (towards orcas) to gentle and soothing (towards seals).
Lead author of the study Robert Pitman who is a researcher at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) had the opportunity to witness one such event when he was collecting scientific data in the Antarctic.
He said he saw how a pack of orcas harassed a fatigued seal and were about to give it the final blow. But in the next minute a duo of humpback whales appears and rescue the seal.
Pitman noted that he was shocked to see how one of the whales gently pulled the distressed animal onto it chest and prevented it from slipping back into the water while its partners chased the orcas off.
“I was shocked. It looked like they were trying to protect the seal,”
He added that after the incident he surveyed other marine biologists to see whether they witnessed similar instances of animal altruism. To his surprise, his colleagues said they also did.
The latest study, which was reported in the Marine Mammal Species, describes 115 instances of humpbacks going offensive on killer whales and 38 cases when humpbacks barred the predators from killing other marine creatures.
Surprisingly, 89 percent of these incidents involved a saved marine animal other than a humpback whale. So, the giant mammals do not protect only their young, but other unrelated species.
It is natural for humpback mothers to risk their lives when trying to keep their young out of harm’s way, researchers explained, as they are striving to preserve and pass on their genes. This is why many animals sacrifice themselves for the sake of community such as bees and other insects.
However, it is highly unusual for a species to jump to the rescue of another species which is not carrying its genes and is not able to ever return the favor.
Some researchers suggest that the curious behavior may be a case of animal empathy.
Numerous studies have revealed that animals react to the emotions and the distress of other animals and try to rescue or soothe them.
The following short clip shows a humpback male trying to console a motionless humpback mother grieving its recently lost calf:
Image Source: Flickr