Mother Orca And Her Dead Calf: A Mother’s Grief?

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The report that the Southern Resident orcas lost a calf came as sad news yesterday, compounding the disappointment of the losses to their fragile population this year – earlier losses included an older and well known female, two males in their prime, and another calf all of which failed to return this summer from the winter foraging. But what makes the news of this calf so heartbreaking is that the mother was observed pushing her dead baby around trying to carry it for hours, and may still be with it today.

L72 and calf San Juan Island Sept. 10, 2010 Photo by Robin Baird, Cascadia Research

From Cascadia Research (Courtesy Orca Network)

Sept. 10, San Juan Island:

This morning we encountered L72 and L105 carrying a dead killer whale calf off the west side of San Juan Island. We followed the whales for just over 6 hours, and most of the time the calf was not visible, but on occasion L72 would lift the calf out of the water when she was surfacing. When we were able to see the calf L72 appeared to either be pushing it in front of her balanced on her rostrum or would be carrying the calf on the top of her head, but the calf was negatively buoyant, so had probably not been dead for long.

Although L105, L72’s ~6 year old son, was within 50 or 100 m for most of the time, we did not see L105 interacting with the dead calf. Based on the size of the calf (approximately 6-7′) we suspect it was near-term but no way to know whether it was stillborn or born alive and died shortly afterward. Upon surfacing L72 would frequently appear to ‘drop’ the calf and both whales would stop and dive deep to recover it. From the photos it appears the calf was a female, and the umbilical is still attached and clearly visible. When we left the whales early this evening L72 still had the calf with her.

We will be out early hoping to re-locate the group, but it would be very good for folks on the water tomorrow to be on the lookout for the dead calf, L72 and L105, or the placenta (which should float and would be of great value to collect).

Robin Baird, Cascadia Research, Olympia, WA

Scientists have yet to come up with a way to define grief in animals – it is too easy to project our own emotions onto other species – yet researchers are increasingly willing to acknowledge that many animals display behavior that looks like mourning. Chimps and gorillas are known to carry their dead infant for days and even months, and elephants stand vigil over their dead. Dolphins in captivity stay with their dead calves, and the following account of a wild dolphin is remarkably similar to that of the mother orca L72.

This event was recorded by researchers, and is compelling in that the scientists express the conflict between the rigors of their training and their actual observations:

From the Tethys Research Institute:

On the 3rd and 4th of July, 2007, one common bottlenose dolphin Tursiops truncatus was observed interacting with a dead newborn calf in the semi-closed waters of the Amvrakikos Gulf, Greece. The behaviour of the presumed mother was observed by Tethys researchers Joan Gonzalvo Villegas and Zsuzsanna Pereszlenyi and by Earthwatch volunteers for approximately 4.5 hours under an oppressive summer heat, in a dead-calm sea.

Whilst researchers must avoid being driven by their own feelings and make arbitrary interpretations, in this case it was quite clear that the mother was mourning. She seemed to be unable to accept the death, and was behaving as if there was any hope of rescuing her calf. She lifted the little corpse above the surface, in an apparent late attempt to let the calf breath. She also pushed the calf underwater, perhaps hoping that the baby could dive again. These behaviours were repeated over and over again, and sometimes frantically, during two days of observation. The mother did never separate from her calf. From the boat, researchers and volunteers could hear heartbreaking cries while she touched her offspring with the rostrum and pectoral fins. Witnessing such desperate behaviour was a shocking experience for those on board the research boat…

The researchers on board did not feel like taking the calf away from the mother to perform scientific investigations (e.g. a necropsy of the calf). Their decision was intended as a form of respect towards a highly-evolved animal, the deep suffering of whom was obvious enough. All the researchers did was recording behavioural information at 1-min intervals, throughout the observations, and collect a small sample of the calf’s skin for future genetic analyses. The mother is a known animal (ID: 03046) who has been observed in the Gulf since 2003.

Recent scientific discoveries show that cetaceans (whales and dolphins) have special cells associated with emotions, called spindle cells, previously found only in humans and the great apes. (More here, from and earlier post)

We see the behavior of grief in the mother orca L72 as she tries to hang onto her infant’s corpse. We know she has the biological structure to feel emotion as we do, and that she experiences strong lifelong bonds to her family.

Nature, and life, can be hard, but there is no reason to harden our hearts or choose to believe that what we see in this mother whale is not an expression of loss. Instead we can choose the compassionate point of view, and by so doing, understand that cetaceans are bright and sentient beings, currently in need of our help as they struggle to survive the damage done to them in the past.

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