Humpback Whales Protect a Gray Whale from Killer Whales

A fascinating example of animals helping members of other species.

Posted May 08, 2012

As more and more data are collected we're learning not only about the prevalence of cooperation, compassion, and empathy among members of the same species (see also and) but also of instances of individuals of one species helping members of other species. Here are two fascinating recent examples.

In the first, three different species of whales were involved. "In what is probably the first time such an event has been witnessed and recorded, humpback whales appeared to try to intervene when a pod of killer whales attacked a baby gray whale. The encounter lasted seven hours. 

When you read the details of the encounter you'll clearly see there's a lot of cetacean cogntion and brain power going on and we need to steer clear of "Dawkins dangerous idea" that we don't really know if other animals are conscious beings.

To quote ceacean expert Dr. Lori Marino who teaches at Emory University:

"This is apparently a case of humpback whales trying to help a member of another cetacean species. This shows that they are capable of tremendous behavioral flexibility, giving even more credence to reports of cetaceans coming to the aid of human beings. They seem to have the capacity to generalize from one situation to another and from one kind of being to another. Moreover, they seem to sympathize with members of other species and have the motivation to help.

"One reason may be that 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. So the presence of these cells is neurological support for the idea that cetaceans are capable of empathy and higher-order thinking and feeling.

"In either case these whales are apparently demonstrating a high level of sensitivity and concern (morality, if you will) that is laudable in any species."

Another example of an animal of one species helping a member of another species involved a pit bull name Lilly pulling her unconscious human companion from the path of a freight train and getting hit by the train while doing so. Human Christine Spain is fine and Lilly is recovering, but Lilly stood guard over her human friend suffering from an injured foot and fractured pelvis.

While these sorts of encounters are rarely seen, I'm sure that as researchers and others spend more and more time carefully observing animals in various situations they'll see between species aid more regularly. Rare or not, these encounters show clearly that animals are sensitive to the plight of others, they display empathy, and they surely are conscious beings.