Humpback Whales Protect a Gray Whale from Killer Whales by Marc Bekoff

humpback whalesAs 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 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 cognition 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 cetacean 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.

Original article: Psychology Today, Published May 8, 2012

Marc BekoffMarc Bekoff is a former Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and co-founder with Jane Goodall of Ethologists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. He has won many awards for his scientific research including the Exemplar Award from the Animal Behavior Society and a Guggenheim Fellowship. Marc has written more than 200 articles, numerous books, and has edited three encyclopedias. His books include the Encyclopedia of Animal Rights and Animal Welfare, The Ten Trusts (with Jane Goodall), the Encyclopedia of Animal Behavior, the Encyclopedia of Human-Animal Relationships, Minding Animals, The Emotional Lives of Animals, Animals Matter, and The Animal Manifesto: Six Reasons for Increasing Our Compassion Footprint. In 2005 Marc was presented with The Bank One Faculty Community Service Award for the work he has done with children, senior citizens, and prisoners. In 2009 he became a scholar-in-residence at the University of Denver’s Institute for Human-Animal Connection and a faculty member of the Humane Society University. In 2009 he also was presented with the St. Francis of Assisi Award by the New Zealand SPCA.

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