'Complex social interaction': Orcas caught 'making up' in affectionate display

Two orcas at Loro Parque zoo in Spain have been captured touching mouths and nibbling tongues in a believed display of affectionate reconciliation, supporting claims of shared social traits with humans.

The orca whales have been observed for a study published on June 18 in Zoo Biology, 'Social interaction analysis in captive orcas'. 

The intimate behaviour between two of the whales at Loro Parque zoo appears to support claims that orcas share some human social characteristics. The orcas were captured touching lips and gently biting tongues in a believed display of reconciliation.

"We conducted a detailed analysis of social relationships shown by the orcas kept at Loro Parque zoo and their tendency to reconcile after aggressive episodes," says the Zoo Biology study summary.

"We documented the pattern "gentle tongue bite", where an animal touches the other's tongue with his teeth but does not bite it."

A recent study published in the American Psychological Association Journal says that orcas appear to share certain behavioural characteristics with both humans and chimpanzees.

A press release summary says the findings "suggest some evolutionary convergence where the personality traits of killer whales and primates are similar because of the advanced cognitive abilities required for complex social interactions".

Orcas in captivity at Loro Parque in Tenerife, Spain.
Orcas in captivity at Loro Parque in Tenerife, Spain. Photo credit: AAP/Loro Parque

Arguing orcas have been seen to bite, jostle and act aggressively towards each other. Scientists believe subsequent affectionate behaviour is indicative of whales resolving the quarrel. They have also noted orcas will return to a synchronised swimming form after making peace.

The behaviour could help further illuminate methods of conflict resolution in killer whales, who are recognised as an incredibly socially-adept species.

"Today we want to share an interesting discovery that has been possible thanks to our direct collaboration," Loro Parque wrote on their Facebook on Monday.

"A study made with the orcas of the park and published in the Zoo Biology magazine has managed to explain the process of reconciliation of this species after a social conflict, being the first time that this conduct is described for science."