Many creatures, from humans (for whom loneliness has lately been dubbed an “epidemic”) to wasps to so-called “Resident” orcas (killer whales in the coastal North Pacific who consume fish and live in matrilineal communities), rely on social ties. The drone footage was utilized in a recent study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B to examine the social dynamics in a pod of Southern Resident orcas in the Pacific Northwest.
“We know these whales are very sociable,” says lead author Michael Weiss, a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Exeter, and a prior study has demonstrated that social ties are crucial for their survival. He believes that being able to assess these linkages in precise detail—for example, identifying who is closely linked to whom—could be crucial to predicting how this group would do in the future. Southern Resident orcas are presently endangered, and the Chinook salmon, their primary food supply, is in decline. Starvation, ocean noise, and pollution have all been causing problems for the orcas.
The authors flew a tiny drone over subgroups of a Southern Resident pod dubbed “J,” which consists of 22 orcas, throughout the summer of 2019. They shot for 15 to 30 minutes straight at a time. After watching the films again, the researchers discovered how frequently two people were in the same group. The researchers were also able to see real interactions between the whales, such as physical contact and surfacing to breathe in tandem, both of which can suggest a social bond. (For example, according to Weiss, many animals utilize touch to strengthen bonds or make amends after a quarrel.)
“The primary issue we had was, who in these groups is genuinely engaging with each other—not simply who they are in a group with?” Weiss agrees. The researchers anticipated that by studying these intimate encounters, they would learn more about what drives these connections, such as whether orcas of the same age contact more frequently than those of different ages, and what role gender plays in these relationships.
According to Weiss, the work is motivated by a methodological challenge of how to effectively assess social interactions in animals. “How can we get a knowledge of animal societies?” goes even deeper.
According to the findings, the primary factor influencing the likelihood that two individuals would be in the same group together was how closely related the mammals were to one another. Other elements, however, had a role in whether or not the animals interacted (physical touch or breathing together). Individuals were found to spend more time socializing with those of the same sex and age, with younger orcas and female orcas having the most active social life.
The researchers’ use of technology was a major component in the study’s success. In an email to Popular Science, Filipa Samarra, a researcher at the University of Iceland and creator of the Icelandic Orca Project, a study and conservation group, said that drones open up “a whole new universe of possibilities.”
“This is an intriguing study that exposes the inner workings of killer whales’ social life at a degree of depth that we don’t typically have access to,” Samarra, who wasn’t involved in the study, wrote.
“Even after years of studying these whales, there is still so much to learn,” Samarra remarked, implying that standard techniques may not completely capture the entire intricacy of social interactions in a group.