Films such as Finding Nemo can make it easy for us to slip into the habit of anthropomorphizing marine life. After all, who isn’t charmed by the thought of a world where all the fish are having fishy conversations with their fishy friends. While the concept of pals might be a stretch for most fishes, a recent study found that for a group of marine mammals, best pals are very much a thing.
The study, published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, employed the help of drones to get a look at the social interactions between orcas from a unique perspective, as much previous research has relied on viewing the surface behaviors of these animals. Kindly, the money for the drones was raised thanks to a crowd-funding campaign which was supported by members of the public and academics alike. With their help, the researchers were able to build a portfolio of 651 minutes of birds-eye-view videos filmed across 10 days.
Upon reviewing the footage, the researchers observed that the pod of orcas exhibited complex social structures, with certain individuals appearing to have formed close "friendships" with specific other whales. In case you’re wondering how you assess the pallyness of orcas from an aerial perspective, there are actually a few tell-tale indicators. Interestingly, they weren’t all that different from the signs of friendship among people.
"We were amazed to see how much contact there is between whales – how tactile they are,” said Professor Darren Croft, of Exeter's Centre for Research in Animal Behaviour (CRAB), in a statement sent to IFLScience. “In many species, including humans, physical contact tends to be a soothing, stress-relieving activity that reinforces social connection.”
Patterns of physical contact were one of the interactions measured in the study, and analyses of these events demonstrated that younger whales and females tended to take center stage within social groups. This trait appeared to fall away as the whales’ ages increased.
Another interaction of interest was synchronous behavior, which is considered to be a sign of closeness among many species (ever seen the absurd mating dance of a hooded grebe?). The whales, too, had their own way of mimicking one another which is likely an indicator of closeness between the animals.
“We also examined occasions when whales surfaced together – as acting in unison is a sign of social ties in many species,” continued Croft, whose colleague, lead author Dr Michael Weiss of the University of Exeter, explained that while birth defines a whale's pod, who they interact with most socially is still down to the individual’s choice. "It's like when your mom takes you to a party as a kid – you didn't choose the party, but you can still choose who to hang out with once you're there."
If you’re inspired by this work, and considering getting your own drone up and running, it’s important to note that the study was only permitted to film these animals in this way as they held research permits issued by the US National Marine Fisheries Service. All pilots were licensed under the US Federal Aviation Administration, a necessary precaution as demonstrated by a recent drone crash on an island that decimated an elegant tern nesting site.