Washington: Two scientists have discovered that humpback whales can out of maternal instinct to save seals running away from predators like killer whales.
According to a report in Natural History Magazine, scientists Robert L Pitman and John W Durban made the finding when they were sailing the tip of South America to the Antarctic Peninsula on the sixty-five-foot yacht Golden Fleece, in search of killer whales last January.
Early one morning, the scientists witnessed a group of killer whales attacking a Weddell seal on an ice floe, and a pair of large humpbacks had inserted themselves into the fray.
At one point, the predators succeeded in washing the seal off the floe.
Exposed to lethal attack in the open water, the seal swam frantically toward the humpbacks, seeming to seek shelter, perhaps not even aware that they were living animals.
Just as the seal got to the closest humpback, the huge animal rolled over on its back, and the 400-pound seal was swept up onto the humpback`s chest between its massive flippers.
Then, as the killer whales moved in closer, the humpback arched its chest, lifting the seal out of the water.
The water rushing off that safe platform started to wash the seal back into the sea, but then the humpback gave the seal a gentle nudge with its flipper, back to the middle of its chest.
Moments later, the seal scrambled off and swam to the safety of a nearby ice floe.
According to Pitman and Durban, in this encounter, the menacing behaviour of the killer whales may have triggered a protective maternal response in the humpback whales.
Even though the humpbacks did not have calves that were at risk, they acted immediately and instinctively to counter the threat posed to a smaller animal.
This phenomenon, when an animal provides maternal care to another that is not its own offspring, is termed allomaternal care.