December 28, 2018
Yesterday Loro Parque announced several research projects it had in the works involving Morgan’s recent female calf. The calf was removed from Morgan’s care after only a few days citing that Morgan “wasn’t producing enough milk.” The calf has been hand reared in the medical pool ever since, and apparently Morgan is being kept in an adjacent tank.
I would have assumed that the calf would be returned to Morgan at the earliest opportunity. Once the calf is coming over for regular bottle feedings and it’s physical health and development were going well the next priority should be to return the calf to Morgan so that its social development can catch up.
Killer whales, like humans, are essentially a blank slate when they are born. Very little about their behavior seems to be instinctive. This is proven by the fact that so far all orca population in the wild seems to have it’s own culture. They not only have their own unique dialects of sound but also their own unique way of feeding and socializing. Resident killer whales in the Pacific North West have strict social hierarchies with individuals never leaving their mother’s pod until the day the matriarch dies. These orca feed only on fish, primarily salmon. Transient whales that share part of their range with the residents feed on marine mammals such as seals, dolphins, and large whales. Transient social structure seems more flexible with individuals seeming to leave their family unites after a certain point. While still another population in New Zealand seems to have their own unique cultural characteristics such as feeding on both fish and marine mammals. There is nothing to explain this difference other than culture, a learned set of behaviors passed down from generation through generation.
In Loro Parque’s blog post they states the following with regard to the development of killer whale echolocation:
There is not much information on whether it is a behaviour that cetaceans learn or if it is innate, nor is there data on the moment in which it appears in their development,
On the surface their plans seem like a great idea. We have this chance to study orca development, why not use it to full advantage? HOWEVER in order to set up an experiment to test if the behavior of echolocation arises on its own through innate instinct you have to control any and all variables for the behavior to appear through social learning. Therefore the Morgan’s female calf HAS to be kept in isolation in order for this experiment to be conducted. Loro Parque has just made it clear that it has no plans to reunite Morgan with her daughter any time soon.