Friendships are not just for humans – scientists found killer friends have friends too

Humans are social animals. We spend time together and bond over all kinds of things. However, friendships are not exclusive to humans – other animals can be social too. A new drone study, done by scientists from the University of York found that killer whales develop close friendships too.

Killer whales have friends that they prefer to hang out with. Image credit: Robert Pittman via Wikimedia

It is not a surprise that some animals have friends. In fact, many animals live in large groups to maximize their chances of survival. Killer whales hunt in groups in many cases. However, this behaviour extends further than just the practicality of catching prey.

An international team of scientists analysed the 651 minutes of video filmed over 10 days. The footage was collected using drones, which proved to be very useful scientific instruments. Drones can be quite small and film in high definition. Whales don’t pay attention to them as much as they become curious about boats and other vehicles scientists use for their observation. The footage included a lot of information about the social fabric of the whale society.

Scientists found that killer whales spend more time with individuals of the same sex and similar age. Just like humans. Of course, maternal kinship is very important in forming these whale societies. In fact, scientists observed that younger whales and females play a central social role in the group. However, whales commonly hang out with certain individuals that are similar to them – same sex and same age. This could mean that killer whales bond as young individuals and then grow up forming friendships.

Even in tightly knit groups killer whales appear to have individuals that they prefer. This would indicate that there might be some personality traits involved as well, making some individuals more compatible. Again, just like humans – even if you live in a large group of people you probably have some individuals who you like more and consider them your friends.

Drones are very useful tools for researching whales. Because drones look straight down, they see whales swimming underwater too. Previously scientists had to observe them only when they came up for air or to hunt. Dr Dan Franks, one of the researchers, said: “The study demonstrates the potential power of unoccupied aerial systems for analysing cetacean societies. We have also used drones to examine the potential impact of how respiratory diseases spread in the endangered killer whale population.”

Friendships are not limited to humans. Animals can also be highly social too and have life-long friendships. Hopefully, scientists will continue investigating patterns of physical contact and see what kind of social role they play.


Source: University of York

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