Dolphin Adopts Whale Calf In First Known Case Of Its Kind

by : Julia Banim on : 01 Aug 2019 14:02
Dolphin adopts melon-headed whale calfNational Geographic

Bottlenose dolphins maternal instincts are known, devoting many years of their life to nurturing their young and preparing them for adulthood.

One dolphin has shown just how caring and maternal this species can be, adopting an orphaned baby melon-headed whale and raising him as her own.


This case is said to be the very first case of its kind, with adoptions being a relatively rare occurrence among wild mammals. In cases where mammals have adopted, their adoptive children have usually been related members of the same species.


In 2014, scientists noticed a highly unusual looking family swimming about in waters off the French Polynesian coast.

The dolphin mother could be seen caring for two very different looking calves, one which appeared to be her offspring and another which was later identified as a baby melon-headed whale.


Bottlenose dolphins have slim beaks, while the adopted baby’s beak was short and blunt. Regardless, the mother treated the calf as her own, with the youngster rarely leaving her side. She was even spotted nursing him.

In a study published in the journal Ethology, researchers suggested the mother’s mix of ‘inexperience and personality’ could well have contributed towards her choice to adopt. This female was already known to have an ‘easy-going’ personality, being notably tolerant of scuba divers within the area.

According to the National Geographic, the whale calf even demonstrated sibling rivalry; repeatedly pushing his adoptive sister away from her place beneath the mother’s stomach.


It’s believed the calf’s ‘persistence in initiating and maintaining an association’ with his adoptive mum ‘could have played a major role in the adoption’s ultimate success’.

The calf also began to behave like other dolphins, integrating within the wider group and playing and socialising with other bottlenose youngsters. He would often participate in activities such as surfing and leaping about in waves.

Researchers followed the family with astonishment, with study lead author Pamela Carzon telling National Geographic:

We were really excited to be able to witness such a rare phenomenon,

[…] At the time we were really, really astonished.


The adoptive mother and son stayed together even after the mother’s biological daughter disappeared for unknown reasons at approximately one-and-a-half years old.

The melon-headed whale calf stayed by his adoptive mother’s side for three years in total, vanishing at around the same time he would have been weaned.


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Julia Banim

Jules studied English Literature with Creative Writing at Lancaster University before earning her masters in International Relations at Leiden University in The Netherlands (Hoi!). She then trained as a journalist through News Associates in Manchester. Jules has previously worked as a mental health blogger, copywriter and freelancer for various publications.

Topics: Animals, Adoption, Whale


Ethnology and 1 other
  1. Ethnology

    Cross‐genus adoptions in delphinids: One example with taxonomic discussion

  2. National Geographic

    Dolphin mom adopts whale calf—a first