WHALES - FAMILY STRUCTURE INTRODUCTION2014
By Amelia Meyer
Whales, like humans, have formal family structures to which they adhere with loyalty. They interact with one another, communicate, train, learn and even mourn as a close-knit family. Being such intelligent animals, whales are able to value their interpersonal relationships in a very special way.
Individual whale families usually travel and migrate together in what is collectively known as a pod. Each member plays a role both in the family structure and in the greater pod. They organise themselves into group according to their genders (with most pods being matriarchal with a dominant bull) as well as the ages of the individuals.
Female adult whales are called cows, and these travel with their calves in the same pod. Pod sizes differ, depending on the whale species, as well as on the population within a certain habitat. The smallest pods are usually of between two and three animals, while the largest number between 30 and 50 individuals. In areas in which mating or feeding is taking place, pods of more than 100 individuals are sometimes spotted.
The cows that do not have young calves to care for act as midwives and babysitters to the other mothers in the pod. They will assist with the birth, help the calf to reach the water’s surface for its first breath (while the mother rests for a few minutes after birth), and help the mother in caring for the newborn baby. Later on, the matriarchal cows will also teach the calves how to hunt, feed, navigate the waters, and even how to care for their own young one day.
Calves stay with their mothers and pods for between three and six years (depending on the gender of the calf and the type of whale). When a female becomes pregnant with her own calf, she may even go back to her mother’s pod to visit the cows that once reared her.
When males (known as bulls) reach the stage of being independent from the care of their mothers and the cows in her pod, they will likely leave the pod and form a juvenile pod with other young bulls. This can take place at anywhere between the ages of three and 13. Once these males become sexually mature, they will probably join a larger pod, in which they will mate. Each pod has a dominant bull, who takes responsibility for the pod and their safety. Because the pod is perceived as his property, the other bulls will travel separately, sticking together but not interfering with the cows or calves.
Whales tend to be social animals. Therefore, travelling and living in this sort of arrangement works well for them. Each individual gets to be with others of its age and gender, while all benefit from the protection of its pod.
In whale species that communicate with each other by means of “song” (such as Humpback Whales), the pod is an extremely important part of their lives and survival. It has been shown that individual pods develop their own songs, complete with a repeated chorus, which is unique to that pod. This indicates what kind of understanding and cooperation exists among the individuals of any given pod structure.
Most whale species live for between 40 and 80 years. During this time, they form very strong bonds with those in their familial pod structure. It is no wonder, then, that mourning rituals have been observed when an individual (even a newborn calf) dies. There is no doubt, therefore, that whales are extremely intelligent and intuitive creatures, with much left to teach us.