The First Time an Orca Mom Adopts Baby Pilot Whale, It’s incredibly Unusual

Scientists have recorded the first known case of a female orca looking after a pilot whale calf.

The orca, known to scientists as “Sædís,” was spotted swimming alongside the calf in the west of Iceland in August 2021. There were two other orcas—likely part of Sædís’ pod—in the water at the time. However, there were no other pilot whales.

Pilot whales travel in pods, making this incredibly unusual. Scientists realized that the orca wasn’t just swimming alongside the calf—Sædís was looking after them. This is the first time orcas have been scientifically documented nurturing and taking care of a long-finned pilot whale calf.

Findings of the incredibly rare observation have been published in a study, in the Canadian Journal of Zoology.

Marie Mrusczok, lead author of the study, told Newsweek several tell-tale signs showed the orca was looking after the calf.

“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,” Mrusczok said. “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.”

This orca has never had a calf of her own. It is possible that she 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. This could further explain the extraordinary behavior, the study reported.

This may have happened before. In west Iceland, pilot whales and orcas inhabit the same waters several times during the year. This means they are likely to have interactions with each other, but it is difficult to document.

The two species could have displayed caregiving behaviors such as this before—but this is the first time it has been analyzed by scientists.

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Sædís was seen interacting with a pod of long-finned pilot whales about a year later, but the calf was nowhere to be seen.

The subsequent interactions between Sædís’ pod and a pod of long finned pilot whales suggested an active effort to obtain another calf, the study reported.

Although scientists are aware that these two species often interact—mainly during predation events—this observation suggests their relationship may be more complex than once thought.

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While this is the first documentation between the two species, some marine species have been observed adopting young from other species.

In 2019, research revealed the first recorded instance of a bottlenose dolphin adopting a melon-headed whale calf. Bottlenose dolphins, like orca, are doting mothers to their young.

Orcas are incredibly socially complex, and have been observed displaying a range of complex behaviors before. There is evidence to suggest the animals care for each other and grieve for their dead.

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