Meet Orca A27
We sometimes use animals that mimic human behavior to gain insights into human mental illness and yes human drug actions. One issue has been that autism has not been well identified in animal populations. That is until Marine Biologist Naomi Rose found Oraca A27. So here is the story.
Dr. Rose is a distinguished Marine Biologist most notable for highlighting issues of animal treatment at Sea World and similar zoological parks. She is extremely critical of such facilities and her research is not well cited, because of her activist stand. She runs a type of mini blog located at:
She is very critical of captive whale policies and treatment. So to understand, she is not a pariah in the field of academic research but she is often not the most cited source. To be fair the lines of activism and observer do seem to cross but when looking at worldwide Orca behavioral traits she is certainly a cited source. Also to be fair she has greatly advanced the knowledge of Orca behavior and has advanced scientific thought about such behaviors.
Orcas are largely family based creatures. They establish close family ties at birth and tend to remain tied to even distant cousins for their entire life. They travel in pods which often roam hundreds or thousands of miles scavenging for food. Calves stay with their mother for up to 2 years after birth and form lifelong relationships with both their mother and the other members of their pod (Rose, 2011). It is a situation not unlike humans who as we know stay close with family even if for some reason one of them leaves a close by family unit. They learn to be Orca’s by playing together, being social creatures and yes grieving together. This leads me to Orca 27.
Orca 27 is one of several stories offered by Laurel Braitmanin in her book “Animal Madness: How Anxious Dogs, Compulsive Parrots, and Elephants in Recovery Help Us”, which I will admit I have not read. Braitmanin offers that Orca 27 is one of 32 whales in a pod off the coast of British Columbia that was studied by Dr. Rose. The male Orca seems healthy in all ways, except, it has not bonded with other members of the pod as expected. He is clearly different. For instance he often goes on tail slapping tangents for many minutes, a behavior not found in other male Orcas and for good reason. Tail slapping can drive away food. So Orcas tend to learn early not to engage in such behavior. But not Orca A27. In addition and very uncharacteristically A27 does not interact much with the rest of the pod, except his mother. He tends to separate from the pod, but not his mother and go it alone. If anything he makes his way in the world more independently. This is clearly not the case with most Orcas.
These observations have led some researchers to speculate that Orca A27 may be autistic. That is unable to find or mimic the group social cues offered by the other members of the pod. Is A27 Autistic? It is very difficult to know and no one is saying for sure that he is. Only that if one went looking for autism in the animal kingdom, A27 is an animal that would need close observation. Maybe the only positively identified animal in the wild that can, at this point, be associated with the human behavior termed autism. Why would it be difficult to find autism in a natural animal habitat? Well the answer is clear, if an animal is autistic in the natural habitat, they are more likely than not singled out by predators. An autistic water buffalo likely will not survive long enough to be identified. This alone makes A27 an important marker in the discovery of the autism spectrum in the animal kingdom.
Yes different, be it in diabetes or mental health is often treated with rude disrespect or at least a since of shame. Orca A27 may be a momma’s boy, but he is perhaps very important in learning how other species deal with and include or exclude members who are different. It seems to me we have much to learn from Orca A27.
Rose, Norma (2011). Killer Controversy; Why orcas should no longer be kept in captivity. Humane Society, International and Human Society of America.
Thanks to Wired Magazine for the idea for this article. Jon Mooallem published his brief synopsis of A27 in the February issue of Wired, in the column Mr. Know It All.