Whales and dolphins are considered relatives – two types of impressive marine mammals, each in different ways. But scientists have been confused for decades by a rather bizarre behavior between these two cousins that seems cruel and gratuitous. We used ChatGPT to get to the bottom of the maritime mystery.
Killer whales (orcas) in the Pacific Northwest, especially the endangered southern killer whales, have been observed over the years harassing and sometimes killing porcupines without any intention of eating them. A recent study published in Marine Mammal Science, co-led by Deborah Giles of Wild Orca and Sarah Taman of the SeaDoc Society, delved into more than six decades of interactions between these whales and the Phocians to understand this enigmatic behavior.
Southern killer whales are a critically endangered population, with only an estimated 75 remaining. Their very survival depends largely on the survival of chinook salmon, another endangered species. The shortage of Chinook salmon poses a serious threat to whales, which is essential for understanding their unique behaviors and ecological dependence.
The study looked at 78 documented cases of orca attacks from 1962 to 2020, and offered three plausible explanations for this behavior:
Social Game: Attacking the Pokene may be a type of game for killer whales. Like many smart species, these whales engage in playful activities for various purposes, including bond-building, communication, and fun. This behavior can foster group coordination and teamwork between the whales.
Hunting practice: Another hypothesis is that attacking percussions may be a way for these whales to hone their salmon-hunting skills. Phocainees can be considered moving exercise targets, although whales have no intention of eating them.
Non-maternal behavior: This theory suggests that whales try to provide care for porpoises they perceive as weaker or sick—an expression of their innate tendency to help others in their group. This behavior can be the result of a lack of opportunities to care for young people, given the reproductive challenges they face, including malnutrition leading to miscarriages or death at a young age in 70% of pregnancies of female killer whales.
While these explanations offer important insights into the behavior of southern killer whales, the study acknowledges that the exact reason behind the attacks may be different. Nevertheless, it is abundantly clear that pucanas are not part of the southern killer whale's diet, as their dietary habits are based on salmon.
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