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Humpback whales intervene in orca attack on gray whale calf
May 10, 2012 10:06 AM   Subscribe

Humpback whales intervene in orca attack on gray whale calf near Monterey, Calif. (article with photos)
posted by KokuRyu (52 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite

 
Don't mess with humpback whales. They have some very powerful friends.
posted by RonButNotStupid at 10:20 AM on May 10, 2012 [3 favorites]


Just wow. That kind of inter-species assistance is astonishing.
posted by arcticseal at 10:28 AM on May 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


There seems to be a trend in animal behavioral research (and neuroscience research) that is justifying some amount of anthropomorphism. And I don't just mean emotional states, but also research on perception (eg human echolocation (beat that Nagel!)), decision making (capuchins and money), and the like.

My teen-aged self is sticking his tongue out at all the teachers and professors who told him to never anthropomorphize, not even a little bit.
posted by thebestsophist at 10:31 AM on May 10, 2012 [9 favorites]


Transient orcas are some ruthless motherfuckers.
posted by Burhanistan at 10:42 AM on May 10, 2012


"Simple. Bloodsucker's a transient, not a resident."

"What are—oh, those are killer whales, right? Whistle dialects."

"I said forget the language. Think about the lifestyle. Residents are fish-eaters, eh? They hang out in big groups, don't move around much, talk all the time." I heard a whisper of motion, imagined Szpindel leaning in and laying a hand on Michelle's arm. I imagined the sensors in his gloves telling him what she felt like. "Transients, now—they eat mammals. Seals, sea lions, smart prey. Smart enough to take cover when they hear a fluke slap or a click train. So transients are sneaky, eh? Hunt in small groups, range all over the place, keep their mouths shut so nobody hears 'em coming."

- Peter Watts, Blindsight
posted by the man of twists and turns at 10:46 AM on May 10, 2012 [6 favorites]


"Meddling humpback whales take away food from desperately hungry orca."

I mean, I understand we're happy to anthropomorphize by thinking of cooperative behavior as "good" and predatory behavior as "evil." But let's remember that it's not as though there's an ongoing struggle for peace in the animal kingdom, and if only there was enough cooperation, love will prevail. Predators are a necessary part of the environment, and so are plankton feeders. So, objectively, there's as much reason to cheer for the humpbacks as there is to be sad that the orca has to go hungry.

It's an interesting incident and it's great to learn about interspecies interaction in the wild, but anthropomorphism is a guilty pleasure and does not belong in science. We should conserve orcas as well as baleen whales.
posted by Nomyte at 10:48 AM on May 10, 2012 [11 favorites]


They have some very powerful friends.

You've got that right!
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 10:52 AM on May 10, 2012


From what I read, the orcas still got to eat.

Still, I also dislike the dichotomy of animal predation into camps of good and evil. I'm not "pulling for" one side or the other when I watch a wolf run down a caribou calf, for example.

Of course, I may have my own interests at heart. I'd hate to see my consumption of grilled chicken cut down because a gaggle of geese decide to get all up in the face of Farmer Joe.
posted by CancerMan at 10:54 AM on May 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm not sure what all the cries about anthropomorphism are about here. Groups of "prey" animals have been seen demonstrating this type of behavior in many incidents. What makes this unique is the inter-species angle.
posted by Burhanistan at 10:55 AM on May 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


It's not that orcas in this case are bad, it's just that one species decided to help out another species. Which is pretty interesting.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:59 AM on May 10, 2012 [4 favorites]


Nomyte: I understand we're happy to anthropomorphize by thinking of cooperative behavior as "good" and predatory behavior as "evil."

Personally, I was thinking less about "good" and "evil" (which is language no self-respecting scholar uses outside of talking about religious studies) but of the idea that the humpbacks were humpback whales seemed EXTREMELY distressed and seemingly empathizing with other species (from the article), and that animals who exhibited this sort of behavior all have Von Economo neurons in the part of the brain that is likely responsible for social interaction, empathy, and language.

It wasn't that long ago that anthropomorphism included statements such as "My dog is happy to see me" and fetch was called "play-like behavior."
posted by thebestsophist at 11:01 AM on May 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


Crazy, I was right there that day. I was fishing for salmon and people were chatting on the radio about seeing whales but i did not see them. Really wish i had seen that.
posted by Felex at 11:03 AM on May 10, 2012


It wasn't that long ago that anthropomorphism included statements such as "My dog is happy to see me" and fetch was called "play-like behavior."

It wasn't that long ago that anthropomorphism included statements such as "That dog is suffering" and animals were clever biological machines that just happen to show the same responses to pain that we do.
posted by junco at 11:06 AM on May 10, 2012 [8 favorites]


From what I read, the orcas still got to eat.

All the way through the "Circle of Life" song from The Lion King, I kept wondering when those happy herbivores were going to realize the circle would work just as well without the lions and hyenas and stamp them to death. It would be like the zebra revolution!
posted by GenjiandProust at 11:07 AM on May 10, 2012 [2 favorites]


It would be like the zebra revolution!

Occupy Serengeti!
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 11:09 AM on May 10, 2012 [7 favorites]


It's not that orcas in this case are bad, it's just that one species decided to help out another species. Which is pretty interesting.

Like AskMeFi but with less moisture.
posted by hal9k at 11:09 AM on May 10, 2012 [2 favorites]


So, objectively, there's as much reason to cheer for the humpbacks as there is to be sad that the orca has to go hungry.

I hear high school students "ooh" and "aww" sadly when predators in nature films take down their prey. I always pause the video and say, "You think this is sad? Wait 'til you see the Planet Earth with the polar bear who's too weak to take down a walrus. That's about the saddest thing EVER."

Predators going hungry and starving to death is no less sad than prey animals being taken down.
posted by scaryblackdeath at 11:10 AM on May 10, 2012


…that animals who exhibited this sort of behavior all have Von Economo neurons in the part of the brain that is likely responsible for social interaction, empathy, and language.

There is no one part of the brain that is "responsible for language," and certainly no one part that is also responsible for "social interaction and empathy." Whether a particular type of neuron contributes to the emergence of these cognitive abilities is still a matter of open conjecture, but I don't think anyone would claim that this is something that scales with having more or less of them.

I've already said that it's an interesting incident because interspecies interaction is a relatively unknown area.
posted by Nomyte at 11:11 AM on May 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


Predators going hungry and starving to death is no less sad than prey animals being taken down.

Unless they are those fucking mosquitos that live in my back yard!
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 11:13 AM on May 10, 2012 [3 favorites]


Without the orcas, who will build the railroads, or discover new alloys?
posted by mr vino at 11:15 AM on May 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


I was fishing for salmon and people were chatting on the radio about seeing whales but i did not see them.

Good thing the humpbacks didn't catch you with that salmon.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 11:15 AM on May 10, 2012 [5 favorites]


> Whether a particular type of neuron contributes to the emergence of these cognitive abilities is still a matter of open conjecture

Very true, but the von Economo neurons are spectacularly interesting, in that they are an example of convergent evolution, only found in species that have rich social lives and that, to our eyes, look empathic. Rather than imposing our functional decomposition of the world onto brains, this is a clear case where brains can tell us something about ourselves (and apes, humpback whales and elephants).
posted by stonepharisee at 11:16 AM on May 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


Shit's goin' down in da Bay o'Monterey.
posted by PapaLobo at 11:16 AM on May 10, 2012


Metafilter: that kind of inter-species assistance is astonishing
posted by Hairy Lobster at 11:16 AM on May 10, 2012


Not buying it.

Groups of male humpback whales are dicks, man. Pretty much all they do is physical intimidation and sexual harassment.

My guess? They were cheering on the melee.
posted by Sys Rq at 11:26 AM on May 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


It is a harrowing journey for a mother and calf. A very long swim, and the mother has not eaten in a long time.

They have to cross Monterey Bay, with its underwater canyon. The transient orcas are just WAITING there for them. Apparently, if they hug the shoreline, it is slightly safer but then they are adding to the length of their journey.

It's a wonder that any of these kids survive.
posted by Danf at 11:36 AM on May 10, 2012 [2 favorites]


Yep, I know its nature and its natural, man, and the orcas are just trying to eat, and so on. Intellectually I realiuse and understand this. I just get all sad because its a baby whale and the mother was trying to save it. Yes, I'm an anthropomorphizing idiot, but I can't help it. Leave the babies alone, orca MFers!
posted by Joh at 11:37 AM on May 10, 2012 [4 favorites]


Let's hunt orcas for their blubber! …Too soon?
posted by Nomyte at 11:41 AM on May 10, 2012


I love whales.
posted by dobie at 11:46 AM on May 10, 2012


Ah, anthropomorphism debate. Anthropomorphism is the ascription or attribution of human characteristics to animals (or objects, or plants, or Republicans).

However, the claim that intelligence, self awareness, altruism, and complex communications are the sole province of humans has been thoroughly debunked. In other words, anthropocentrism is the worse crime here.

As far as the article goes, it isn't portraying the orcas as "bad" - it says right in there up front that it's a natural predator prey relationship. The man bites dog part of this story is that the humpbacks clearly were responding to the distress of the grey whales. It would be anthropomorphic to say they were trying to interfere with the attack, and to suggest that they were doing so for altruistic or sympathetic reasons. I think it's interesting to note that most people have an emotional response to this - think about where that response is coming from.

Anthropocentrism is collective solipsism. To think that humpback whales cannot comprehend the situation and feel sympathy to the point of taking action is incomprehensible to me. However, proving that they do, is well nigh impossible. To state with certainty that the humpbacks were acting in any other manner other than out of pure instinct is not scientifically rigorous.

Rigor is overrated. If the article reports the events correctly, the humpbacks were at the very least very interested in the events, and at most, attempting to intervene. It's not really a stretch.
posted by Xoebe at 11:53 AM on May 10, 2012 [10 favorites]


Well, I don't know if I'm anthropomorphizing, but the mother and the calf were probably exhausted and terrified, and that kind of kills me, even though I know that's the natural order of things etc.

Sometimes, I long for the simpler days where dolphins and orcas were smiley theme park entertainers instead of psychopathic hooligans, even though as an adult, I support their right to be free-ranging psychopathic hooligans instead of slaves.

But come on, cetaceans, don't fight each other! Humans are fucking up your planet, gang up on us instead?
posted by peripathetic at 11:54 AM on May 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


I continue to find the arguments about anthropomorphism tiresome.

I don't disagree at all with the general caution against assuming without cause that our human experience of the world is shared by other animals. But I strongly believe that were western science not the product of dualistic Judeo-Christian anthropocentric exceptionalism, then there wouldn't be this bias favoring the notion that animals are necessarily unlike ourselves and that this bias is equivalent to "intellectual and scientific rigor". It's not. It's perverse, because this anthropocentric exceptionalism that gives rise to this bias is itself profoundly anti-scientific and just plain stupid.

What is scientific is to assume that we're like animals and animals are like us when we don't have a good reason to assume otherwise. Because, scientifically, we are more like other animals than not. We're certainly more like other mammals. And even more like other mammals which are social. This notion that it's unscientific to assume in any way that the subjective experience of dogs, or whales, or gorillas is like our own is itself profoundly unscientific. Until there's some strong scientific basis for general human exceptionalism — and there's not — the correct assumption is that animals are like us and we're like animals. We're different from other social animals in important ways, just as whales are different in important ways from seals. We're different in important ways from other hominids, just as humpback whales are different in important ways from gray whales. But notice that no one thinks to ostentatiously scold others for assuming that different species of animals are like one another when there are observed similarities. This supposed rigor is all about protecting the sense that humans are unique, not about being scientifically rigorous in understanding other animals.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 12:13 PM on May 10, 2012 [23 favorites]


The primary source of anti-anthropomorphism seems to be the necessity for medical experimentation on animals (and, maybe to a lesser extent, carnivorism). There's absolutely nothing scientific to it; the data is profoundly in favor of a deep theory of mind, memory, awareness, emotion, intent towards goals, empathy, communication, and so on. But if we were to respect all those things, we'd either:

a) Stop experimenting on animals, which would lead to a lack of knowledge, or
b) Start experimenting on humans, after all you can ignore all that stuff right? This should be ridiculous but it happened rather frequently in the 20th century. Politics got ugly.

Both are ugly, so we end up at c: Pretend animals are automata according to rules that are easy to prove humans don't match.
posted by effugas at 12:24 PM on May 10, 2012 [5 favorites]


"Simple. Bloodsucker's a transient, not a resident."

Actually, Watts has a more in-depth co-written short story on orcas: Bulk Food (goes to a CC-licensed PDF), which is hilarious and grim and lightly based on his first career as a marine biologist interacting with the aquarium and animal rights lobbies in Vancouver. It's educational!
posted by figurant at 12:26 PM on May 10, 2012 [6 favorites]


I mean, I understand we're happy to anthropomorphize by thinking of cooperative behavior as "good" and predatory behavior as "evil." But let's remember that it's not as though there's an ongoing struggle for peace in the animal kingdom

In the same way that a wolf eating a human child is part of the animal kingdom and not evil whatsoever, and say, the child's pet dog attempting to intervene/showing distress at this event would just be "cooperative" behavior. Objectively, there's as much "reason" to cheer for the pet dog as there is to be sad that the wolf has to go hungry. It's science!
posted by crayz at 12:45 PM on May 10, 2012


I seem to remember a BBC Nature program featuring orcas killing a baby grey whale in Monterey Bay and all they ate was its (admittedly sizeable) tongue. They left the rest of the carcass and moved on.
posted by jontyjago at 1:29 PM on May 10, 2012


From what I read, the orcas still got to eat.

Plenty of fish in the sea.
posted by AdamCSnider at 1:29 PM on May 10, 2012


Are there any good articles that try to address the history of orca evolution and reasons why the pods split off from each other and demonstrated markedly different feeding behaviors? Some of the differences between residents and transients seems as fundamental as pastoral versus nomadic hunting people.
posted by Burhanistan at 1:33 PM on May 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


From what I read, the orcas still got to eat.

Plenty of fish in the sea.


From what I have read, at least on the Pacific Coast, the resident populations of Orcas, especially in Puget Sound and waters to the north, have evolved feeding on the numerous salmon runs that go through there.

The "transient" populations mainly have evolved feeding on other marine mammals including seals and sea lions, whales, and presumably otters (when there were enough of those to bother going after.

Once, on San Juan Island, we were sitting on the west coast of the island in a popular whale watching spot, and someone's dog decided to take a swim. I got nervous for the dog. . .it would be easy for an orca to take it, but someone said that these resident ones swimming by eat only fish. Now if a transient pod would have been around, that might have gotten interesting for the dog. Or maybe not.
posted by Danf at 1:40 PM on May 10, 2012



Genetic studies confirm that the two species of orca whales do not interbreed and some scientists say they have been separated for 100,000 years. The “transient killer whales” in the San Juan Islands are apparently more closely related to transients in the Atlantic Ocean than they are to the their close neighbors in the Pacific Ocean and Washington.

posted by Danf at 1:43 PM on May 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


From what I have read, at least on the Pacific Coast, the resident populations of Orcas, especially in Puget Sound and waters to the north, have evolved feeding on the numerous salmon runs that go through there.

The "transient" populations mainly have evolved feeding on other marine mammals including seals and sea lions, whales, and presumably otters (when there were enough of those to bother going after.


I live in Victoria (I can see San Juan Island as I type this), which is home to the same resident pod you saw on San Juan Island. Anyway there are actually 4 populations of orcas in the neighbourhood:

The northern resident pod, which lives in the Inside Passage, north of Quadra Island and Johnstone Strait; the southern resident pod, which lives in Juan de Fuca Strait, Puget Sound, and Georgia Strait; the transients, which live off the West Coast of Vancouver Island, and a fourth pelagic population, which may range from Alaska all the way down to Baja.

The transients and the pelagics rarely come in passed the mouth of the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
posted by KokuRyu at 2:13 PM on May 10, 2012 [2 favorites]


Whales are astounding critters. Good thing those legs have atrophied and they live in the water, or orcas would be our blubbery overlords.


MetaFilter: Like AskMeFi but with less moisture.
posted by BlueHorse at 6:32 PM on May 10, 2012


"Good thing the humpbacks didn't catch you with that salmon." Humpbacks eat fish too.
posted by RuvaBlue at 6:59 PM on May 10, 2012


When I leaned this dogma: "... animals are automata.." as a young teenager [autistic] I became very sad and thought, "My dog doesn't love me, no one loves me" [family problems]. Now that I know that they are not much different than humans, I say "if animals are automata [especially intelligent mammals] then I guess humans are just as much automata as they are".
posted by RuvaBlue at 7:06 PM on May 10, 2012


KokuRyu...we get transients in Howe Sound in the fall. There always seems to be one or a very small pod spotted in the thick of salmon season. They follow the seals and sea lions.

Back in 2006 a friend caught on video three transients hunting, attacking, playing with and then killing and eating a sea lion in Bowen Bay, on the west side of our island. It is amazing to see how powerful and agile they are, and to see how terrified the sea lion was.

I think that is why we anthropomorphize. In as much as we are the biggest predators on earth, we still think of ourselves as the prey.
posted by salishsea at 10:18 PM on May 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


♫ My humps, my humps, my humps, my humps, my humps,
My humps, my humps, my humps, my lovely little lumps
(Check 'em out) ♫
posted by iviken at 3:51 AM on May 11, 2012


No.

This thread has only one acceptable theme song.
posted by Sys Rq at 10:10 AM on May 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


So, objectively, there's as much reason to cheer for the humpbacks as there is to be sad that the orca has to go hungry.

It's an interesting incident and it's great to learn about interspecies interaction in the wild, but anthropomorphism is a guilty pleasure and does not belong in science. We should conserve orcas as well as baleen whales.

Nomyte:

1. Objectivity has nothing to do with cheering.

2. Anthropomorphism is not really worse than the naive (and even willfully ignorant) assumption that animals do not share much of your nature and mine. Untested assumptions are a problem, regardless of whether they are about humanlike appearances or dumb-beast expectations. However, the overwhelming balance of evidence at this point strongly suggests that mammals, and especially large mammals, have an intrinsic tendency to protect infant mammals, even of prey species (such as leopard/antelope kid or lion/human child).

3. Conservation is a red herring. No one was interfering in this article. They were observing nature at work.
posted by IAmBroom at 12:37 PM on May 11, 2012


However, the overwhelming balance of evidence at this point strongly suggests that mammals, and especially large mammals, have an intrinsic tendency to protect infant mammals

Or, you know, eat them.
posted by Sys Rq at 12:32 PM on May 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


Humpback opera
posted by homunculus at 1:03 PM on May 12, 2012


Sys Rq: also true.

We're... complicated.

You done with that embryo?
posted by IAmBroom at 9:47 AM on May 14, 2012


Good thing those legs have atrophied and they live in the water, or orcas would be our blubbery overlords.

Look, sea creatures already moved onto land at least once in earth's history. I'm not sure that something that already has most of the plumbing already is going to have much of a problem making the jump back once it finds all the krill and seals drying up and all these HFCS-fattened soft-bodied bi-peds running around on the land, let's not tempt fate!
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 9:51 AM on May 14, 2012


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