A recent study published in the journal Marine Mammal Science investigated an interesting premise: the possibility that humpback whales display altruism, given the many stories of the giant creatures seeming to "help" other species such as seals. This 2009 account in Natural History Magazine is a good example of the phenomenon (in the photo above, a killer whale can be seen at center, next to a seal on an ice floe while a humpback whale looms in the foreground. Credit: J. Durban).
That story spawned the new study, which examined more than 100 humpback whale and orca interactions from various published and anecdotal accounts. When all was said and done, the researchers noted multiple instances of humpback whales rushing to the scene of attacks by the killer whales on animals of a species other than their own.
The researchers said that while it made sense for humpbacks to defend their own calves, they had nothing to gain by meddling in attacks on other species. Were they displaying altruism? "Although reciprocity or kin selection might explain communal defense of conspecific calves, there was no apparent benefit to humpbacks continuing to interfere when other species were being attacked. Interspecific altruism, even if unintentional," the scientists wrote, "could not be ruled out."
Is it surprising that animals might practice a bit of altruism? Maybe it shouldn't be. In fact the animal world is full of species you might not expect to be quite so selfless. Read on for more.