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New babies bring hope for endangered Southern Resident orcas

New babies bring hope for endangered Southern Resident orcas

A silver lining of this strange year was the news that Tahlequah, the orca who...
Mass stranding of pilot whales in Tasmania

Mass stranding of pilot whales in Tasmania

Over 450 pilot whales have stranded in various locations along a stretch of coastline in...
Success! France to ban captivity of whales and dolphins in marine parks

Success! France to ban captivity of whales and dolphins in marine parks

WDC’s continued campaigning to end the keeping of whales and dolphins in captive facilities for...
Belugas take ‘little steps’ into the ocean sanctuary

Belugas take ‘little steps’ into the ocean sanctuary

We are pleased to confirm that beluga whales, Little Grey and Little White, have taken...
Tahlequah, the Southern Resident orca, gives birth to healthy calf

Tahlequah, the Southern Resident orca, gives birth to healthy calf

J35 and J57. Photo by Katie Jones, Center for Whale Research / Permit #21238 Tahlequah...
Why do female orcas live so long after they stop having babies?

Why do female orcas live so long after they stop having babies?

Orcas are one of only five species known to experience menopause and females can live...
Humpback whales swim up river in Kakadu National Park

Humpback whales swim up river in Kakadu National Park

Wildlife experts in Australia's Northern Territory are monitoring a humpback whale that has travelled 18...
WDC scientists join call for global action to protect whales and dolphins from extinction

WDC scientists join call for global action to protect whales and dolphins from extinction

Scientists from Whale and Dolphin Conservation, along with over 250 other experts from 40 countries,...

Sperm whales: keeping up with the Joneses

Sperm whale at surfaceKeeping up with all the research published on whales and dolphins from around the world is a daunting task these days. There is now more research published every month on whales and dolphins than ever before.  This is good news for conservation, helping us to evolve better understanding about the complex lives of this fascinating order of mammals.  

Amid the dearth of new information, every now and then there is a piece of research which really stands out. That happen this week when Maurıcio Cantor and colleagues published an article in Nature Communications on the social learning of click patterns (known as codas) by two sperm whale clans studied off the Galapagos Islands.

The research mined an 18 year data set and is significant because it shows that culture can be an important mechanism for shaping and maintaining some social structures. Hal Whitehead and colleague Luke Rendell have long been examining how culture – once thought to be a uniquely human attribute – manifests in whale and dolphin populations. They published a book on this very subject last year, to much acclaim.

What is interesting about this latest research is that it shows that these two social groups of whales have segregated into two distinct clans on the basis of these socially learnt codas (and possibly other associated socially learnt traits). Just like humans trying to ‘Keep up with the Joneses’ it seems that sperm whales also may use their neighbours as benchmarks for how they fit into social systems. But luckily for them, they don’t get caught in the race for accumulation of material possessions.

This relationship with culture helping to shape social structure is perhaps not surprising, but it is great to see this question examined with evidence from this long-term sperm whale study. Perhaps there is an even more complex reciprocity between these two elements, in that social structure may also influence the flow of information and hence how culture can spread within social groups (although this may even out in due course), as well culture shaping social structure. No doubt these further mysteries will be unravelled in time.

You can hear more about this fascinating research on the BBC:
For UK listeners – BBC Radio 4’s Inside Science programme with Tracey Logan at 4.30pm on Sept 10th.
Outsite the UK -BBC World Service’s Science In Action programme with Jack Stewart at 18.30 GMT on Sept 10th.

Read the Scientific paper – Multilevel animal societies can emerge from cultural transmission Maurício Cantor, Lauren G. Shoemaker, Reniel B. Cabral, César O. Flores, Melinda Varga, Hal Whitehead. Nature Communication. Sept 8th 2015.