Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The Loneliness of the Adult Male Sperm Whale

The caption to this National  Geographic photo, by Mike Korostelev, is
In the Azores, an archipelago approximately 900 miles off the coast of Portugal, a group of sperm whales huddles beneath the surface. While adult males are solitary creatures when not breeding, females and juveniles assemble in pods of 10 to 20 members, often vocalizing and touching each other when socializing, as seen here.
And this set me wondering. What is it like for an adolescent male sperm whale to leave the pod and set off on his own? Is he lonely? Does the longing for companionship drive him to fight other males for access to the females during mating season? Or is he happy to be free? Does maturation among male sperm whales cause them to lose the need for companionship they had in their youths? I am convinced that all mammals have feelings, so I'm sure that sperm whales feel something. But I cannot imagine what a male sperm whale feels during his decades of lonely life in the deep ocean.

1 comment:

G. Verloren said...

When I was young, my family "owned" a half-feral cat.

She lived outdoors and she was an aloof creature, avoiding human touch and seeming to have no desire for socialization. She appreciated that we fed her dry food and gave her clean water every day, and she would show her gratitude every now and then by leaving us portions of the wildlife she hunted, but she really had no need for intimacy or affection from other creatures.

...except when she suddenly did. Sometimes she would just flip over to being attention loving for a few days, hanging around the front porch and peering through the window, hoping someone would notice her and come pet her and spend time with her for a while. It didn't seem very regular or predictable, but it happened a few times a year. I assume it's possible it was some hormonal change related to her natural reproductive cycle, despite her having been spayed at a young age - but of course, I can only speculate.

Sometimes animals just radically change their behavior and emotions. You see it in certain breeds of dogs sometimes, where animals that are as sweet and gentle as can be, will - under the right set of conditions - suddenly become bizarrely and inexplicably volatile and aggressive. Some inner switch gets flipped, some instict gets triggered somehow, and suddenly the animal acts completely against their nature, behaving like they've never behaved ever in their lives.

This sort of inexplicable behavioral change even occurs in humans as well. There have been many reports by women, and a number by men as well, of experiencing sudden, overwhelming compulsions toward violence when interacting with small animals or very young children. These are normal, healthy people who for no readily apparent reason just occasionally experience intrusive thoughts toward irrational aggression. Most such individuals are able to dispel these thoughts immediately, and certainly never act on them. But they're evidence that sometimes, our biology can simply cause us to radically and unexpectedly shift our behavior and emotions to polar extremes.

I imagine there is a connection between these sorts of behaviors. If I had to guess as to the nature of the behavior change in male sperm whales, I would assume it was an instinctual reaction that coincides with a major change in hormone balance. When it is time to breed, their brain chemistry shifts and they become intimate and desireous of socialization. But once mating is done, their hormone levels return to a state that leaves them solitary and unwanting of contact with others. That seems like a simple, straight forward, and entirely plausible explanation to me.