After analyzing the personality traits of 24 captive orcas (commonly referred to as killer whales despite being members of the dolphin family) at SeaWorld Orlando, SeaWorld San Diego and the Loro Parque zoo in Tenerife, researchers have come to the conclusion that the species shares personality traits with chimpanzees and humans. These include playfulness, cheerfulness and affection. Six of the whales studied were caught in the wild, while the rest were born in captivity.
Researchers worked with animal trainers and marine zoo staff to complete surveys ranking each orca on a list of 38 personality traits, including playfulness, independence, stubbornness, bravery, sensitivity and protectiveness. Their findings were analyzed and compared with studies of the same traits in chimpanzees and humans. The findings were published online in the Journal of Comparative Psychology.
“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.”
The study utilized a personality measure called the five-factor model, which assesses five personality dimensions: extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, dominance and carefulness.
Orca personality traits were found to be more similar to chimpanzees than humans, but were similar to both in terms of in terms of extraversion. Commonalities were also found in terms of conscientiousness, agreeableness and some traits related to dominance.
The study didn’t analyze the effects of captivity, as that would require studying orcas in the wild, which would be far too difficult. However, effects like increased neuroticism, heightened aggression and dorsal fin collapse have been observed.
SeaWorld itself has been the target of much scrutiny because of the cramped living conditions it keeps its orcas in and the effect this has on the physical and mental health of its orcas — including former star attraction Tilikum — a killer whale involved in the deaths of at least three people.