Killer Whale Personalities

Personalities are not limited to humans. A wide variety of animals display different personalities, which are known as behavioral syndromes in the field of animal behavior. Behavioral syndromes (aka personalities) can be defined as: a collection of traits that characterize an individual’s response and is relatively stable over time. In other words, an individual animal will tend to react a certain way to a particular stimuli pretty much every single time. Behavioral syndromes have been documented in arthropods, mollusks, mammals, birds, reptiles, fish, and amphibians.

For example, animals can differ in their degrees of boldness; when presented with a certain stimuli, some animals are more apt to approach it directly and investigate. Others might be more timid and choose not to approach it. Fascinatingly, personalities can have a big impact on evolution and on an animal’s fitness.

There has not been much formal study into the personalities of killer whales, but if you have spent any time around them, you will notice different behavioral traits in individuals. I have noted this in some individuals in the southern Alaska resident killer whale population. This is AP3, an adult female killer whale from AP pod:

She appears to be a particularly bold individual. Most of the time, the other whales in her pod will ignore our vessel and continue on foraging, traveling, or socializing with one another. AP3, however, tends to approach our vessel nearly every single time we encounter her. Here are a couple of photos of her on the numerous occasions she has surfaced near our boat:

What is particularly interesting is that AP3 has a calf. There is evidence that personalities have a hereditary basis and can be passed on to offspring. Killer whale calves and young females (prior to their first calf) tend to be particularly inquisitive in general so we will have to wait and see if AP3′s calf displays its mother’s bold personality when it matures or after (if female) she has her own calf.