VIDEO: Drone Footage Reveals The Secret Social Lives Of Killer Whales

A new study that used drones to film killer whales discovered that they have complex social structures including close friendships, reported in June, 2021.Note: Photo provided with permission, NMFS/NOAA Permit 21238. (Center for Whale Research-University of Exeter/Zenger News)

This stunning aerial footage of a pod of killer whales has helped researchers uncover the predators’ secret social lives, during which they pick and choose friends and become less sociable as they grow old.

A study by the University of Exeter and the Center for Whale Research has found that killer whales (Orcinus orca) form complex social structures in their pods.

“Until now, research on killer whale social networks has relied on seeing the whales when they surface, and recording which whales are together,” Michael Weiss, lead author of the paper, said in a statement.

Using 651 minutes of drone footage captured over 10 days, the team was able to get a better insight into the lives of the orca pod.

“Looking down into the water from a drone allowed us to see details such as contact between individual whales,” Weiss said. “Our findings show that, even within these tight-knit groups, whales prefer to interact with specific individuals.”

He summarized this behavior by comparing it to children at a birthday party.

“When your mum 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.”

Much like humans, the orcas will spend more time with the pod members they prefer.

The factors driving this decision are not yet entirely clear, however, the study found that the whales tend to favor spending time with pod members of the same sex and similar age.

A new study that used drones to film killer whales discovered that they have complex social structures including close “friendships.” (Center for Whale Research-University of Exeter/Zenger News)

“We were amazed to see how much contact there is between whales — how tactile they are,” said Professor Darren Croft, from Exeter’s Centre for Research in Animal Behavior. “In many species, including humans, physical contact tends to be a soothing, stress-relieving activity that reinforces social connections.”

Drone footage of killer whales showed how the young orcas like to touch their close friends. (Center for Whale Research-University of Exeter/Zenger News)

“We found fascinating parallels between the behavior of whales and other mammals, and we are excited about the next stages of this research,” Croft said.

The study, which built on over four decades of data collected by the Center for Whale Research on critically endangered whales, was published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

(Edited by Stella Grace Lorence and Kristen Butler)



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