Orca Pods Are Adopting Pilot Whales and No One Knows Why

A pod of orcas has been spotted accompanied by a baby pilot whale, with no other pilot whales nearby.

The pod of killer whales was spotted near Iceland this week by researchers with the Icelandic Orcas research program, but a similar phenomenon was observed in the summer of 2021 by the nonprofit group Orca Guardians Iceland.

According to a post on social media by the Icelandic Orcas group, the team was studying a group of playful orcas when they saw the baby whale.

The pilot whale calf pictured with an adult orca last year. A similar occurrence was observed this month off the coast of Iceland. Orca Guardians Iceland / Marie Mrusczok

"Amongst the orcas was what appeared to be a newborn pilot whale. There were no observations of pilot whales in the area the whole day. Where did this baby come from?" said the post. "This adds a whole other layer of complexity to the study of interactions between pilot whales and killer whales. Absolutely incredible!"

Orca Guardians Iceland saw the same thing happen in August 2021, with a lone pilot whale calf swimming with a pod of orcas off the coast of West Iceland.

"We observed a newborn pilot whale calf swimming in echelon formation with a killer whale female that is well-known to us," they wrote in a post. "There were other members of the killer whale female's pod around, but no other pilot whales. How did the pilot whale calf end up swimming with a pod of killer whales, and what did it mean in terms of interactions between pilot whales and killer whales that we had observed several times here in West Iceland?"

The nonprofit doesn't know at this point why this happens, nor why it seems to be happening repeatedly. It's an especially strange interaction because pilot whales and orcas have been observed acting antagonistic towards each other, with pilot whales actively chasing away orca pods.

"We have seen interactions of killer whales and pilot whales before here in West Iceland, but then usually with larger groups of pilot whales showing some sort of 'mobbing' behavior towards the killer whales, and sometimes this can turn into a high-speed chase as well, with the killer whales leaving the area quickly," Orca Guardians Iceland told Newsweek.

Despite being commonly known as killer whales, orcas are in fact species of dolphins. They are highly social, using echolocation to communicate and hunt together in groups. They have varied diets, ranging from fish, penguins, seabirds, seals and even large sharks and other whales.

Families appear to be crucial to orca life, with pods being made up of related mothers and their descendants. Females give birth to one offspring once every three to 10 years, and the rest of the pod helps to take care of the offspring.

According to Steve Byrne, founder of The Global Orcas Society and Orca Week 2022, the orcas haven't made a mistake in adopting their distant relative pilot whale calf.

"They do not think it's one of them, and they do not think it's their pet," he told Newsweek.

pilot whale
Stock image: a long-finned pilot whale and its calf. Female pilot whales can help each other to raise the young in the pod. iStock / Getty Images Plus

Pilot whales have a very similar matriarchal social structure to orcas, with female relatives helping each other to raise young in the pod. Occasionally, calves can become separated from the group, or even abandoned. Calves won't last very long alone, facing hunger without a mother's milk and threats from predators. Perhaps, Byrne said, the orcas showed the calf empathy, and adopted it, rather than eating it as an easy meal.

"Orcas are a highly developed species", he told Newsweek. "They understand, perhaps even have empathy for those in need. A pilot whale calf alone in the ocean has a need for care to survive."