Study finds evidence of sperm whale culture

Study finds evidence of sperm whale culture
Sperm whale.

Differences in the patterned clicks that sperm whales use to communicate with each other seem to be down to culture and not genetics, say researchers.

The finding could influence ; instead of focussing solely on where the animals live, protection should also consider which they use.

All in a pod use the same small selection of patterned clicks. Scientists think they use the sounds to show other whales that they're part of the same gang.

But in the Pacific, scientists have discovered that the whales belong to one of five clans, with each clan using a different dialect. Each dialect is made up of a different handful of similar Morse code-like patterned clicks called codas. The whales may use the clicks to communicate that they belong to a particular pod, and to maintain .

Luke Rendell from the University of St Andrews and his colleagues wondered if maybe the difference between clans was down to genetics.

"It's an obvious question to ask. What are the genetics of these populations? Are these dialects culturally transmitted or ?" says Rendell.

To find out, Rendell and colleagues from the US and Canada extracted from the whales' sloughed skin to see if they could see any genetic differences between the clans. In total, they analysed DNA from 194 sperm whales belonging to 30 different from three of the vocal clans across the Pacific Ocean.

If the whales' dialects were biologically determined, those that share the same dialect would have similar too. But this isn't what the researchers found.

Instead, they found that whales with different repertoires of codas are often genetically similar. This suggests that the don't explain clan differences, and that dialects must be passed down through the . It turns out that the clans don't just have different dialects; they also have different hunting patterns, parenting habits, and reproductive rates.

"All the evidence for culture relies on methods of exclusion. It's very difficult to actually prove cultural transmission,' says Rendell. 'But our finding isn't consistent with anything other than cultural dialects."

Sperm whale pods are made up of females – with a few young – and average around 12 individuals. Male sperm whales leave the pod when they're juveniles and join all-male pods for a few years, before beginning a solitary life roaming the oceans.

This latest study, published in Behavior Genetics suggests that sperm whale groups are made up of individuals that use the same dialect, rather than those that come from a similar area of the Pacific.

The creatures hold a range of records: they're the deepest diving mammal, the largest toothed whale and have the biggest brain on Earth. But they don't have the sharpest eyesight or sense of smell. So they communicate using codas, which can be incredibly loud. The sounds are very different to the sounds made by other marine mammals like humpback whales, which sing haunting songs to each other, or dolphins which whistle.

"The make the sounds in the 'big tub of oil at the front of their huge heads", explains Rendell. Along with air sacs in the whales' heads, the structure produces multiple pulses, just fractions of a second apart.

"We hope our finding will get people thinking about conservation, and the idea that behaviour in marine mammals is culturally-determined," Rendell says.

This story is republished courtesy of Planet Earth online, a free, companion website to the award-winning magazine Planet Earth published and funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC).

Explore further

Biologists interpret the language of sperm whales

More information: Luke Rendell, et al., Can Genetic Differences Explain Vocal Dialect Variation in Sperm Whales, Physeter macrocephalus?, Behavior Genetics, published 21 October 2011, DOI: 10.1007/s10519-011-9513-y
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Citation: Study finds evidence of sperm whale culture (2011, December 5) retrieved 18 September 2019 from
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Dec 05, 2011
No surprise, they have to be able to differentiate each other.

I'm curious if dolphins and porpoises can understand each other to some extent ?

Dec 05, 2011
Behavioral contagion is not culture. Take about the sound pattern contagion and the biology of sperm whales remains the same. Not so humans who cannot exist except for the skills they pick up. Human pick up culture through our capacity to infer mental states. No other animal does. No nonhuman animal further cares about culture--but humans use culture to mark themselves out as different and "better". Speak the wrong dialect and you are outgroup. There is no evidence of that click pattern differences have this function in sperm whales. An important part of having culture is the possibility and stigma of being "uncultured". Nothing exists like this in nonhuman animals. The all reason animal researchers talk about "animal culture" is to game funding bodies for grants by implying an false and misleading importance to understanding humans.

Dec 05, 2011
I think an interesting experiment would be to place a orphan whale with a different cultural group and see if the calf still speaks the dialect it was born into or if it picks up the foster groups dialect.
Or, if sperm whales do not accept different babies, one could do it with a calf being raised by humans - do these calves still speak a dialect?

Dec 05, 2011
No surprise, they have to be able to differentiate each other.

I'm curious if dolphins and porpoises can understand each other to some extent ?

that question was answered decades ago. Dolphins are known to have social and lingual interactions nearly as complex as humans...and considering we only understand a few things they 'say', they may be just as bright as us...

As for the culture, as anyone else seen the beluga whales bopping their heads to the mariachi band in that video. All they need is some sombreros to make it a little more obvious that the mexican culture extends beyond humankind.

Dec 06, 2011
Too bad they taste so good ! :\

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