Mum sperm whales have babysitters when they go food shopping!

June 14th, 2009 - 3:49 pm ICT by ANI  

London, June 14 (ANI): Biologists studying sperm whales in the North Atlantic have found that mothers use organised babysitting sessions so they can go hunting for food.

Scientists at the University of St Andrews, Durham University and Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, have discovered that females share responsibility for the younger members of a pod by establishing networks of carers.

The whales are specially adapted to allow them to make long, deep dives. But many of these adaptations only develop in maturity, meaning calves cannot follow their mothers when feeding.

This leaves the calves vulnerable to killer whales, which often follow pods of sperm whales to prey upon the youngsters.

Now, scientists have found that whales use the equivalent of a babysitting pool to ensure mothers can feed without endangering their young.

Shane Gero, a marine biologist at Dalhousie University and the lead author of the research, said that in larger groups the babysitting tended to be reciprocal.

“The diving behaviour of a group changes when a calf is present,” the Telegraph quoted Gero as saying.

Sperm whales have the largest brain of any animal and are thought to be highly social creatures.

Recent research has revealed that the whales often sing duets when they are socialising. Females tend to form groups of around a dozen individuals and can spend up to 10 years caring for their calves.

For the study, the researchers spent two years following 23 sperm whale calves and their families through the Sargasso Sea around Bermuda and the Eastern Caribbean in a 40 foot research vessel.

They found that all of the youngsters were cared for by individuals other than their own mothers at given times. In some cases mothers would even nurse babies belonging to other members of the group.

In small groups, responsibility for babysitting a young calf would often fall to the same trusted female, often a great aunt.

In larger groups, a number of females took turns to care for the calves of other members.

The study has been published in the journal of Behavioural Ecology and the Natural Environment Research Council’s online journal Planet Earth. (ANI)

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