Orcas (also known as killer whales) have what some scientists call “culture.” They exhibit a range of behaviors depending on their global locations (the species is found in every ocean on Earth) and how they live in those locations (there are transient, resident, and offshore orcas). Some males stay with their mothers for life. Many pods are led by matriarchs. Some hunt in teams using methods that require strict coordination and a seemingly sophisticated level of communication.

I could go on and on about how amazing these animals are or you could read this lovely section of “How Orcas Work Together to Whip Up a Meal” from this month’s National Geographic about orcas caring for a disabled calf whom biologists have named “Stumpy”:

[Cetacean biologist Tiu Similä] tells an orca story that shows how little we know about them. In 1996 the team spotted a calf with a spine and dorsal fin that had been severely injured, probably from a boat strike.

“We named him Stumpy because of his damaged dorsal fin,” Similä said, adding that she doesn’t actually know whether the calf is a male or a female. “He’s not like other killer whales. He can’t hunt, and they care for him.”

Instead of living with a single pod, Stumpy swims with at least five different ones, all of which feed him. Once, Similä watched as two females came dashing through the waves, each carrying a large herring for Stumpy. She thinks the orcas understand that a boat injured him, because they keep him away from boats.

“Stumpy is the biggest mystery to me. I don’t know what will happen when he becomes sexually mature,” Similä said. “But the other orcas know he needs help, and they help him.”

Some researchers have suggested that an orca pod has such tight social bonds that its members respond to other animals and their environment as a single-minded group. That may be why entire pods strand when only one sick member heads for shore. And why some males die after the death of their mother. Perhaps it’s also why so many orcas help Stumpy.

This is not the first time that such a triumph of the delphinidae spirit has been documented (here’s a story about orcas off Port Elizabeth in South Africa caring for a young member of their pod who was missing its dorsal and right-side pectoral fins). Good to know that when the tides rise and humans die out, a species capable of compassion will be taking over.

[Photo via AP]