Scientists may understand why killer whales repeatedly crash into ships

In recent years, the maritime community has been alarmed by a series of incidents involving orcas, also known as killer whales, attacking and damaging boats. This unusual behavior has escalated to over 700 reported cases, raising concerns and questions among scientists and seafarers alike.

The phenomenon was first recorded in 2020 when these majestic sea creatures began to exhibit deliberate boat ramming behaviors. The incidents have not been isolated, spreading across the marine territories, with notable occurrences in the waters surrounding Spain and Portugal.

Marine experts have traced the origin of this behavior to an adult female orca named White Gladis, who is believed to have experienced a traumatic event involving a boat collision. This incident seems to have sparked a behavioral trend that has been adopted by younger orcas, propagating through the population.

A recent study led by Alex Zerbini, a renowned marine biologist with the International Whaling Commission, suggests that these continued attacks may be a form of cultural tradition among the young orcas. The act of ramming into boats has, intriguingly, become a widespread practice among them.

Zerbini’s research indicates that orca populations often have distinct dietary habits and foraging behaviors that are passed down through cultural transmission. These behaviors form persistent traditions within ‘ecotypes,’ or distinct groups of orcas with specific foraging strategies.

Occasionally, these groups may also adopt temporary behavioral patterns, or ‘fads,’ which seem to lack an apparent adaptive function.

“Different populations often have distinct dietary specializations maintained by cultural transmission, and these ‘ecotypes’ typically have a variety of persistent behavioral traditions related to their divergent foraging,” Zerbini and colleagues wrote in a new study into the phenomenon.

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“Some populations may also develop unusual and temporary behavioral ‘fads’ and other idiosyncrasies that do not appear to serve any obvious adaptive purpose.”

The current trend of boat ramming by orcas is one such fad, according to the study. While it has become a prevalent activity, it is uncertain how long this behavior will persist. Similar fads have been observed in orca populations before, eventually fading over time.

The study continues to monitor these behaviors, aiming to understand the deeper implications of such ‘fads’ and their impact on both the orcas and human activities at sea.

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