Whales Welcome a Deformed Dolphin Into Their Pod

dolphin with whales photo
Alexander D.M. Wilson / Aquatic Mammals

In 2011, biologists Alexander Wilson and Jens Krause traveled to the Azores to study sperm whales in the North Atlantic. Instead of merely learning about an aspect or two of the animal's behavior in the wild, however, the scientists got an unprecedented peek into whales' seemingly gracious spirit as well.

Over the course of their research near the island of Pico, Wilson and Krause encountered a pod of whales, made up of several adults and calves, that had apparently adopted an unlikely non-whale companion to join their clan -- a deformed bottlenose dolphin.

Alexander D.M. Wilson / Aquatic Mammals

According to researchers, the pod's odd member appeared to be surprisingly well-integrated into whale society. Over eight days of observation, the biologists observed the adult dolphin swimming, feeding, and even nuzzling along with the sperm whale behemoths.

"It really looked like they had accepted the dolphin for whatever reason," says Wilson, in a report from Science Magazine. "They were being very sociable."

Although interspecies interaction, and even unique forms of play, have been recorded before between dolphins and whales before, the researchers can only speculate as to why this mixed species arrangement might be more lasting.

Alexander D.M. Wilson / Aquatic Mammals

Wilson suspects that the dolphin's curved spine and slower swimming skills may have made it a target of bullying from its own species, so it sought comfort in a new community of slower-moving, less antagonizing whales:

"Sometimes some individuals can be picked on. It might be that this individual didn't fit in, so to speak, with its original group."

It is, of course, impossible to determine how the sperm whale pod feels about their smaller species tag-along, though it could derive simply from their shared instinct to be social superseding the superficialities of their differences. After all, both dolphins and whales are surely intelligent enough to know that the vast expanse of the world's oceans doesn't feel quite so foreboding when in the kind company of others.

Many thanks to Alexander Wilson from the Leibniz-Institute of Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries for permission to use his photos and his help!