But in even more unusual cases, animals will “adopt” animals of a completely different species, raising them as if they’re their own child. That was the rare but sweet phenomenon researchers observed recently after discovering a bottlenosed dolphin is caring for a whale calf.
The discovery was made by Far out Ocean Research Collective, an organization based in New Zealand. Weeks ago, they noticed the adult female dolphin bonding with a newborn pilot whale.
They suspected the dolphin could’ve been the whale’s “adoptive mother,” but required some more observation.
While that family arrangement is not unheard of, it’s still a rare and mysterious sighting.
“Bottlenose dolphins are known to occasionally acquire calves of other species but the reasons behind this are still not fully understood,” the Far Out Ocean Research Collective wrote on Facebook.
“It could be a misguided motherly instinct, or she lost her own calf,” marine researcher Jochen Zaeschmar told 1 News.
While it’s heartwarming to see such an unlikely mother-child relationship form, sadly it will likely not last very long, as the dolphin and whale will literally grow apart.
In addition to the species’ different eating habits and schedules, pilot whales grow much larger than bottlenose dolphins at adulthood.
“It’s quite unusual to adopt a species that’s bigger than them,” Zaeschmar told Stuff.co.nz. “We’re really hoping to encounter them again … it’d be quite interesting after winter, when the calf would have really started growing.”
It’s also likely that the young whale will end up back with its own kind. Zaeschmar says that while it’s unlikely to find its original mother, it might rejoin a pod.
“Pilot whales spend seven years with their calves,” he told 1 News. “There is a good chance it will eventually join another pod of pilot whales as they often cross paths.”
What an amazing thing to spot in nature. Even among marine life, a mother’s instinct can be a powerful thing.