In the first discovered case of this kind, a bottlenose dolphin has taken in a baby melon-headed whale and is bringing it up as if it is its own calf. Five years ago, a team of researchers started noticing that this dolphin was not only looking after her own baby but was also being followed around by a male calf that didn’t quite fit the description of a bottlenose dolphin. Further study showed that it was a melon-headed whale, a whole other species.
Found living in the waters off the coast of French Polynesia with a pod consisting of around 30 dolphins, this discovery led to a lot of excitement amongst researchers. Pamela Carzon, the leader of the group who studied the dolphin and scientific head of the Groupe d’Etude des Mammiferes Marins de Polynesie called it a rare and exciting phenomenon, especially in the wild. She admitted that they were just really astonished when they first realized what was happening.
The group’s observation of the unusual trio showed that the whale was quite attached to his adoptive parents and hardly ever strayed far from her. Their family is even more unusual because not only is the whale a different species, dolphin mothers usually do not look after more than one calf at the same time.
Not only was he part of their trio, the whale was also clearly part of the pod. It played with its sibling and they would often compete for their mother’s attention by pushing each other out of the prized spot under her abdomen. It would even mingle and play with the other dolphin calves. The whale also learned to surf and dive into the waves which are also activities characteristic of dolphins.
The study can be found in Ethnology and the researchers believe that this occurred due to the mother being young and also because of her personality. The whale’s own efforts to connect with her also contributed to the making of this successful family. Even after the dolphin’s own calf disappeared after turning one, the whale continued to stay with her. It only left at the age when calves are generally weaned away from the mother.
While Bottlenose dolphins have been known to steal babies from other species they don’t raise the calves like they do their biological offspring. Kirsty Macleod, a behavioral ecologist, explained that by a stroke of luck, the whale must have met its dolphin mother just at the moment when she was open to creating bonds with her own calf leading to the formation of this strange little family. Earlier the dolphin had also accepted the presence of divers around her so she did not push the whale away when the calf approached.
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While it was the calf that first initiated the relationship, the dolphin’s own permissive inclinations played a major role. Hopefully more examples of interspecies adoption will be discovered that will help us understand what animals are thinking.
Maybe they are not much different from us.
IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr