Orcas near the Iberian Peninsula collide with and sink boats.
Researchers believe they are imitating the behavior of a single woman named White Gladis.
It’s possible that White Gladis was activated after being hit by a boat, or that the behavior was playful.
Killer whales target boats near Spain and Portugal, and researchers say it may be because they mimic a specific killer whale’s behavior.
Worrying encounters between boats and the killer whale population off the Iberian Peninsula began in 2020.
Three years later, researchers have documented hundreds of incidents where an orca directly approached or collided with a boat. In these encounters, the killer whales’ behavior generally follows the same pattern: approaching the rear of the ship and hitting the rudder until the boat successfully comes to a stop.
Most interactions caused minimal damage, but in three separate cases the whales caused sailboats to sink.
The behavior may have been traced to a single female killer whale named White Gladis.
Alfredo López Fernandez, a biologist at the University of Aveiro in Portugal who studies orcas, told Live Science that a leading theory as to why this happens is that White Gladis experienced a “critical moment of agony,” perhaps colliding with a boat, and then began attacking them.
“That traumatized orca is the one that caused this behavior of physical contact with the boat,” López Fernandez said.
The orcas may be trying to play
Killer whales are highly intelligent, social creatures and are known to learn and pick up on behaviors from each other, whether intentionally or not. It is clear to researchers that the behavior is spreading and that more and more killer whales in this particular population are participating.
“We don’t interpret that the killer whales are teaching the juveniles, although the behavior has spread vertically to the juveniles simply through imitation, and later horizontally among them, because they see it as something important in their lives,” López Fernandez told Live Science. com.
Another expert told Insider that the behavior may indeed be the result of imitation, but perhaps for a different purpose: play.
Andrew Trites, director of the Marine Mammal Research Unit at the University of British Columbia in Canada, said he thought it
might not be accurate to say that the killer whales “attack” the boats, even if it feels that way to the people who sailing in it. .
“They’re very tactile, they have a sense of touch,” Trites said of killer whales, explaining that they’ve been known to rake their teeth across another killer whale’s body, as well as rubbing and bumping into each other. He thinks the interactions with boats are probably a “playful activity that got out of hand”.
If White Gladis was indeed hit by a boat and traumatized, he thinks she would go out of her way to avoid colliding with a boat again, instead of crashing into it. He also said that the fact that other orcas mimic and adopt the behavior suggests that they benefit or enjoy it, which also indicates play.
The behavior is unlikely to spread to other orca populations
Even if all orcas in the Iberian population, about 39 at last count, eventually come to imitate and adopt this behavior, it is unlikely to spread to orcas elsewhere, such as populations in North America.
“There is very little chance that they will learn from the group in Spain and Portugal, in part because the different ecotypes of killer whales around the world don’t interact with each other. They stay apart,” Trites said, noting that orca populations represent different ecotypes who eat different foods and behave differently.
For example, the three ecotypes found in British Columbia do not socialize. “They don’t hang around and swap stories,” he said.
But if more and more orcas from the Iberian population continue to collide with boats, it could eventually lead to serious injury or death to a person or a whale.
Or, Trites said, the orcas could just get bored with the boats and stop participating.
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