This Orca Mother Is Still Carrying Her Dead Calf More Than A Week After It Died

An orca mother (not J35) with her calf, spotted here offshore from South Georgia. Christopher Michel/Wikimedia Commons; CC BY 2.0

By now, I’m sure you’ve all heard about J35, the orca living offshore from Washington that was seen carrying her dead calf through the water, balanced on her snout.

Perishing just 30 minutes after being born, the corpse is, per the Seattle Times, still being pushed about by the mother more than a week on from the death’s occurrence. Observers fear that another young orca in J35’s extended family – J50 – is also likely to perish soon, based on her emaciated cranium.

Orcas – killer whales, to some – are breathtaking creatures no matter which way you cut it. The largest of the dolphin species (and not actually whales), they’re fearsome, prolific predators and widespread explorers, found in waters from the polar regions right up to the Equator.

Orcas are able to use echolocation to hunt and navigate through the darkest nights. They live in familial pods, and – thanks to their ability to use advanced sonic communication – each pod has a distinct, easily recognizable “accent”.

They suffer grief, which can be defined fairly crudely as emotional distress paired with a clear change in usual behavior, according to an anthropologist that spoke to National Geographic. As it happens, they also appear to mourn their dead, just like us, with the very same publication pointing to a 2016 study on what is technically referred to as “nurturant behavior toward dead conspecifics”.

Observational evidence described in the study suggests that, based on 14 incidences spread across three oceans, at least seven toothed cetaceans engage in similar mourning practices: the carrying of a dead calf for a prolonged period of time. These include, aside from orcas, Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins, spinner dolphins, Australian humpback dolphins, sperm whales, Risso’s dolphins, and short-finned pilot whales.

Common bottlenose dolphins, belugas, humpback whales, and other marine mammals are known to engage in the behavior too, according to pre-existing research. In fact, various versions of mothers staying by corpses can seen all across the animal kingdom, from sea otters and manatees to elephants, lemurs, giraffes, and chimpanzees – even when the dead young is in a very advanced state of decay.

There are several explanations for why this happens. In some cases, it has been inferred that it’s a grim form of play rather than of care – something that’s occasionally observed in juvenile common chimpanzees and dead infants – but that’s unlikely in many cases.

It’s noted to occur in species that “rely on cooperation and social bonds”, often involving multiple adults looking after one individual offspring. The mourning behavior, then, may be an extension of the inclination to ensure the survival of relatives.

It’s also highly probable that the mothers are simply incapable of accepting the death of the offspring, something that our own species can certainly empathize with.

Orcas seen in the Northwest Pacific. Rennett Stowe/Wikimedia Commons; CC BY 2.0

The emotional distress aside, J35 seems healthy, and she’s still with her family, but that doesn’t mean everything’s going to get better. Despite the family recently finding some salmon to dine on, J50 – almost certainly the next to die – appears to be starving to death, a clear sign that not all is well.  

This relatively small, 75-member strong family of orca whales are, per the Guardian, in danger of dying out. They’ve not had a successful birth in three years, which is why researchers will retrieve the dead calf when J35 lets it go, in order to find out why it didn’t survive.

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