In a rare and extraordinary display of cross-species parenting, a female orca in Iceland has been recorded nurturing and caring for a pilot whale calf. The female orca, named “Sædís” by scientists, was spotted swimming alongside the calf in the west of Iceland in August 2021. The sighting is the first documented case of orcas taking care of long-finned pilot whale calves.
Pilot whales travel in pods, which makes this incident incredibly unusual. The orca was not merely swimming alongside the calf, but scientists realized that Sædís was nurturing and caring for the calf. The observation is detailed in a study published in the Canadian Journal of Zoology.
Marie Mrusczok, lead author of the study and member of the West Iceland Nature Research Centre (Náttúrustofa Vesturlands) institute, explained that the orca was swimming with the calf in the echelon position, allowing the calf to make fewer tail fluke movements and overcome physical limitations during high-speed travel. The behavior indicates that the calf was being “carried” by the pressure wave created by the larger body of the adult orca.
While orcas and pilot whales have close-knit families in the wild, this is the first time that such a cross-species interaction has been documented. Sædís, who has never had a calf of her own, may have adopted the pilot whale calf as a substitute. The observation suggests that the relationship between the two species may be more complex than previously thought.
Although scientists know that pilot whales and orcas often interact, mainly during predation events, this behavior suggests a more nurturing relationship between the two species. In fact, the subsequent interactions between Sædís’ pod and a pod of long-finned pilot whales a year later suggested an active effort to obtain another calf.
This is not the first time that marine species have been observed adopting young from other species. In 2019, researchers recorded the first instance of a bottlenose dolphin adopting a melon-headed whale calf. Orcas, which are known for their complex social behaviors, have been observed displaying a range of nurturing and grieving behaviors.
The sighting in Iceland is a remarkable example of the complexities of animal behavior and the potential for cross-species interactions in the wild. It provides valuable insight into the social dynamics of these marine mammals and raises important questions about the nature of their relationships with each other.