(WHALES) CALIFORNIA — Off the coast of Monterey Bay, humpback whales attempted to defend a gray whale calf from a pod of killer whales in front of groups of whale watchers. The calf’s mother fought as best she could, but when the killer whales’ skilled attack was too much for her, the humpbacks stepped in. This is likely the first time something like this has been witnessed and recorded. Read on for the full story. — Global Animal
Digital Journal, Candace Calloway Whiting
At this point, whale researchers Alisa Schulman-Janiger and Nancy Black arrived on the scene in Monterey Bay Whale Watch boat Pt. Sur Clipper, and continued to observe the unusual encounter for nearly seven hours. Shortly after their arrival the baby whale was killed, and the mother took temporary refuge by their boat before heading towards shore.
Dr. Lori Marino, senior lecturer in neuroscience at Emory University in Atlanta, is a renowned expert in the cognitive ability of whales and dolphins and she shared her opinion of this remarkable event:
This is apparently a case of humpback whales trying to help a member of another cetacean species. This shows that they are capable of tremendous behavioral flexibility, giving even more credence to reports of cetaceans coming to the aid of human beings. They seem to have the capacity to generalize from one situation to another and from one kind of being to another. Moreover, they seem to sympathize with members of other species and have the motivation to help.
One reason may be that humpback whales, and many other cetaceans, have specialized cells in their brains called Von Economo neurons (“spindle cells”) and these are shared with humans, great apes, and elephants. The exact function of these elongated neurons is still unknown but they are found in exactly the same locations in all mammal brains for the species that have them.
What is intriguing is that these parts of the mammal brain are thought to be responsible for social organization, empathy, speech, intuition about the feelings of others, and rapid “gut” reactions. So the presence of these cells is neurological support for the idea that cetaceans are capable of empathy and higher-order thinking and feeling.