Pilot Whales Join the Babysitters’ Club

Off the coast of Nova Scotia, pilot whales look out for each other.

Published November 24, 2016

Have you ever watched a friend’s kid so he or she could take a much-needed break? Congratulations, you are an alloparent. Babysitting is relatively common among intelligent, social mammals, and scientists have just entered one more species into the alloparenting club: long-finned pilot whales.

Before this, alloparenting had only been confirmed in a few cetacean species, including orcas and sperm whales. It makes sense that pilot whales would be babysitters too, but scientifically demonstrating the behavior in marine mammals is difficult—all that water gets in the way.

So when Dalhousie University’s Joana Augusto set out to study pilot whale parenting as part of her PhD research, she knew she had her work cut out.

For three summers, Augusto and her colleagues tagged along on daily whale watching tours out of Nova Scotia’s Cape Breton. They collected photos of all the pairs of adults and calves they saw. They identified individuals by unique markings, such as the patterns of nicks and scratches on their dorsal fins. If they photographed a calf with more than one adult, they knew it was spending time with adults other than its mother.

Augusto found that half of the calves identified in the study were spending time with more than one adult. Augusto believes that calves are not only safer when they’re accompanied by an adult, they’re also learning the social norms of their group.

“In pilot whales and other long-lived, social mammals that have very strong bonds between individuals, [alloparenting] behavior is not surprising,” says Robin Baird, a marine mammal biologist with the Cascadia Research Collective. After foraging at night, he explains, pilot whales spend the day resting and socializing, so it probably doesn’t take much extra effort for adults to keep an eye on each other’s calves while they’re all taking it easy.

“This is something that we do as humans, helping take care of each other’s kids,” says Augusto. “I find it really cool that whales do the same thing.”