Look: Incredible drone footage reveals killer whales’ secret social lives

M. Weiss, et al. ROYAL SOCIETY (2021)

When you think about killer whales, “good friends” might not be the first description that comes to mind.

But a new study puts a wrinkle in the orca’s fearsome reputation. Stunning drone footage shows the marine mammals forming close friendships with other members of their pod.

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Scientists have studied killer whales’ social behavior before, but there’s always been one major barrier: Killer whales live underwater and scientists, generally, do not.

M. Weiss, et al. ROYAL SOCIETY (2021)

That’s why drones played a central role in a new study led by the University of Exeter and the Center for Whale Research.

Rather than record whales only when they surface, the scientists could peer underwater. "Looking down into the water from a drone allowed us to see details such as contact between individual whales,” the team reports.

To gather data, the researchers captured 651 minutes of footage shot from above with drones.M. Weiss, et al. ROYAL SOCIETY (2021)

The footage shows that within already tight-knit pods, whales single out specific individuals to spend time with.

M. Weiss, et al. ROYAL SOCIETY (2021)

"It's like when your mom takes you to a party as a kid – you didn't choose the party, but you can still choose who to hang out with once you're there."

Lead author Dr. Michael Weiss


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While different orcas have different preferences, younger pod mates and females generally seem to be at the center of social circles. The older a whale gets, the fewer friends it seems to have.

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Individuals were also more likely to be friends with members of the same sex who were of a similar age.

Signs of friendship among killer whales include physical contact and surfacing together. Touch and coordinated behavior are common signs of social ties among animals.

“We were amazed to see how much contact there is between whales – how tactile they are.”

Co-author Professor Darren Croft


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The researchers note that orca social behavior is similar to many other mammals, including humans.

Further research could explore more ways mammals’ social lives look similar whether they’re on dry land or under the sea.

M. Weiss, et al. ROYAL SOCIETY (2021)

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