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Guest review of a new book on culture in whales and dolphins

I have pleasure in introducing another guest blog by Icelander and WDC friend, Kris Hjalmarsson, who reviews a brand new book exploring ‘culture’ in whales and dolphins.

As a frequent visitor to the WDC website, I feel fortunate that I have been given this opportunity to post my review of a recently-released book, The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins by Hal Whitehead and Luke Rendell.

Humpie the humpback by Tim Stenton

In this revolutionary book, destined to become a classic, the authors show that ‘culture’ is information that flows between animals; it is socially learned and shared within a community. For example, Rendell and Whitehead give a concise presentation of how a humpback whale song is a form of non-human culture, since a humpback whale learns the song from other humpback whales and passes it on.

Another great example of memory and learned information involves ‘Billie’, a wild bottlenose dolphin that had a three-week encounter with trained, acrobatic dolphins in an Australian aquarium while receiving treatment for an injury. Billie learned how to ‘tail walk’ from these captives while being treated for the injury. When returned to the wild, she began teaching other wild dolphins this new ‘trick’ and, well over twenty years later, this teaching continues to be passed on to other dolphins in that region. Essentially, ‘tail walking’ has become a hit in the wild.  

The book gives readers a captivating insight into the various ways that dolphins communicate with each other using a wide variety of signals, such as doing upside-down lob tails – slamming the top of their flukes onto the surface of the water – which appears to signal the dolphins’ arrival at a particular destination.

Much-deserved credit is given to the painstaking work of Stephanie King and Vincent Janik which demonstrates that dolphins remember, and produce copies of, ‘signature whistles’ of individuals with whom they have strong social bonds. Their research shows how captive dolphins can remember, and strongly react to, the whistles of dolphins they lived with over twenty years earlier and never made contact with since.

This social learning, memory and communication are a clear example of information flow and culture. I encourage you to embark on a fascinating journey of discovery and a beautiful insight into the world of whales and dolphins: without doubt, some of the most intelligent, beautiful and remarkable creatures to inhabit this earth.