Killer whales display personality traits similar to those of humans, such as bravery, cheerfulness and stubbornness, a study has found.
For the first time researchers assessed captive whales using personality measures usually reserved for humans, asking their trainers to complete surveys ranking the mammals on a list of 38 traits.
They found that the traits of killer whales were similar to those of both humans and chimpanzees. The whales were found to be playful, gregarious and sociable like humans but more like chimps when it came to being stubborn, protective, patient, and peaceable.
“This is the first study to examine the personality traits of killer whales and how they relate to us and other primates," said lead researcher Yulán Úbeda, a doctoral student in psychology at the University of Girona in Spain.
“These similar personality traits may have developed because they were necessary to form complex social interactions in tightly knit groups that we see in killer whales, humans and other primates.”
Killer whales can live into their 90s in tightly knit pods that hunt together and share their food, displaying advanced communication skills and cooperation.
However the personality traits could differ from those in the wild, researchers warned.
Previous studies have shown that captivity can alter the personality of killer whales, increasing neuroticism and aggression.
Physical changes, such as dorsal fin collapse, also have been observed. SeaWorld, which was involved in this study, has faced scrutiny over the cramped living conditions for its captive killer whales.
The current study did not analyse the effects of captivity and was conducted with captive killer whales because it would be difficult to assess the personality traits of killer whales in the wild, Miss Úbeda said.
The research was published in the Journal of Comparative Psychology.