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Why are humpback whales protecting animals from killer orcas?

In 2009, marine ecologist Robert Pitman witnessed how a humpback whale went to great lengths to save a seal from orcas that were circling in on it for the attack. The humpback fought off the orcas, had the seal climb on top of its upturned belly and then placed it back on the safety of an ice floe in Antarctica. Ever since, Pitman has conducted research on the apparently altruistic behavior of humpback whales. Of the 115 documented interactions between humpback and orcas between 1951 and 2012, 89 percent were interventions by the former to save prey from the latter. One hypothesis, not too convincing, explains this behavior as an attempt by humpbacks to generally deter hunting by orcas. This would not be entirely selfless. Orcas attack humpbacks’ calves, so in fighting the predators off, they are ensuring safer seas for their offspring. The alternative explanation would call for deeper research and reexamining our zoological notions. Is it possible that the whales are displaying behavior observed on land mammals, such as dogs, apes, and—oh heresy—humans? Namely, they are purely doing the good deed, or acting out of revenge against a rival family from the same species. If so, it would add to the evidence that animals’ feelings and behavior are far more complex than tight evolutionary notions have made us believe. These concepts, perhaps, have stretched for far too long from Darwin to our days.


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