A baby humpback whale observed alongside a right whale that would have adopted him, an extremely rare case

It is a most unusual observation reported by ABC News on October 30, 2022: a southern right whale (Eubalaena australis) was spotted off the coast of the Australian town of Esperance, accompanied by a calf of another species, a humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) juvenile. According to animal experts, this could be a rare case of inter-species adoption, where the right whale could have taken the youngest under its wing – or rather, under its pectoral fin – and assumed the role of his mother, possibly missing.

Whale adoption! πŸ‹πŸ‹A researcher believes a southern right whale may have adopted a young humpback calf. πŸ₯ΉAn image of…

Posted by ABC Australia on Monday, October 31, 2022

A baby separated from its mother and adopted?

Footage of the unlikely duo was captured using a drone by photographer Jess Wohling, who spotted them swimming near a nearby beach. However, it was once she examined them more closely that she realized the divergent characteristics between the two whales. A difference confirmed by Katy Fannei, researcher of the Australian project Little White Whale tracking southern right whales in the area. Asked by ABC News, she said she was “blown away” by the scene, which is indeed extremely unusual but not impossible. According to her, the most likely hypothesis is that it is a kind of “adoption”, which could be the first evidence that the two species can engage in such a relationship:

The closeness of the adult and calf as they swim alongside each other in the video is nearly identical to the closeness exhibited by the related mother and calf pairs as they travel together.

Erich Hoyt, research fellow at Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (United Kingdom) questioned by our colleagues from LiveScience, also believes that inter-species adoption is likely. For good reason, the calf of a humpback whale normally stays with their mother during the first eleven to twelve months of their life. A calf abandoned or separated from its mother before it is fully developed “could accommodate a mother southern right whale of similar size for comfort”, he explains. The latter, meanwhile, could be grieving the loss of her own calf and could thus have heard the distress calls of the lost calf.

β‹™ Do animals mourn their companions?

Inter-species adoptions, very rare cases

However, the scientist makes it clear that the images do not make it possible to identify whether the adult is indeed a female. The calf may also have emancipated itself prematurely and started looking for other whales to follow. A longer study of the interactions between the two marine animals will have to be carried out to unravel the mystery of their relationship. Katy Fannei and her colleagues are currently on their trail to try to find them, for more observations, she indicated to ABC News.

Moreover, it would not be the first time that cetaceans have formed “blended families”. In 2018, a young narwhal (Monodon monoceros) had been caught alive among belugas (Delphinapterus leucas) of the St. Lawrence River (Quebec, Canada). More recently in Iceland, a group of killer whales (Orcinus orca) was seen with a baby pilot whale (Globicephala). In mammals too, rare cases of this phenomenon have been observed, such as this lioness who adopts a baby leopard.

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