Whoa. This might go down as the most remarkable whale story I’ve ever heard. Monterey Bay, CA is a world-famous whale-watching spot, and on May 3, 2012, watchers were treated to an event that might change the way we think of whale cognition.
The hunt: A group of transient orcas was witnessed trying to separate a gray whale calf from its mom, a common hunting behavior. All of a sudden, two migrating humpback whales appeared. As the gray whale mother attempted to save her calf, the humpbacks splashed and trumpeted to scare away the orcas, often within a body length of the other whales.
Unfortunately, the baby whale was killed, but a total of five humpbacks harassed the orcas for hours (as seen in the photo from the scene, above), perhaps trying to keep them away from feeding on the carcass.
It’s a remarkable sequence of events. Dr. Lori Marino of Emory University, an expert in whale cognition, had this to say:
… 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.
It’s difficult, if not impossible to equate this kind of behavior as “feelings”, in the human sense, but there’s certainly empathy here, and between two species to boot!
Whatever the answer, it’s touching proof of the intelligence of whales, and perhaps we can take this as a reminder that defending other species from destruction (or extinction) is a natural, core value of intelligent creatures like ourselves.
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