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This article was received by email from the Stop LFAS Group on Friday 16th January 2004.

Whale Culture

by Karen Lurie ScienCentral News 13th January 2004

Scientists who study whales are starting to notice signs that these giant creatures may be exhibiting signs of what we humans would call culture. ScienCentral News reports, the latest research into a question that has puzzled scientists for years.

The Language of Whales

Humans may not be the only mammals who have different cultures. Some scientists are starting to consider the notion that whales might also.

"Whales are pretty hard to study, but evidence is coming up from quite a number of species that in a whole range of ways, they're learning things from each other and they're passing it on to other whales, and that's culture," says Hal Whitehead, biology professor at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, Canada. He explored the topic in the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences and based his conclusions on several studies including his own.

Whitehead says whale culture isn't exactly like ours; for instance, whales don't have opposable thumbs, so they can't make objects to pass on through the generations. "[Whale] cultures are in their minds and not in the things that they make," says Whitehead. So much of what scientists know about whales comes from studying their language.

What do they have in common with our cultures? "Whale culture has, like human culture, a range of types and styles," says Whitehead. "At one end, there are the fast moving what might be called 'pop' cultures," such as when male Humpback whales sing songs to attract females or ward off other males. "These songs evolve, so that at the beginning of the breeding season they're all singing one song and then it's changed a bit by the end," says Whitehead. "And after a couple of years they're singing a totally different song."

But other whale languages don't change as quickly. The dialects of killer whales, which travel in large extended-family groups called pods, "seem to change much more slowly and to be linked to particular social structures," says Whitehead. "A particular pod will have its own dialect, and that dialect will be similar to pods which are the members of the same clan, and clans will have dialects which are different from one another—just as humans from different parts of the same country may sound a bit different, but humans from different countries may be totally unintelligible to each other," says Whitehead. And these dialects will be stable. "In sperm whales which we study, we can record a group of sperm whales now, we can record them ten years from now, and we won't notice any difference in the sounds they're making."

In addition to language, Whitehead says that different behaviors among whales indicate that whales might have what we'd call a culture. He notes that different pods of whales can have distinctly different sets of behaviors and languages even though they share territory. "We find this situation where we have multi-cultural societies," he says. "In one place, there are animals who make their living in very different ways."

It isn't just killer whales. Whitehead says sperm whales off the Galapagos islands have two distinct ways of speaking. These whales speak in a series of clicks, but some of them often add a pause and a final "click." Whitehead likens it to the way many Canadians often add "eh" to the end of a sentence. Where this is important, says Whitehead, is that depending upon the weather, one group may survive better than the other. He notes that the whales with the last click accent seem to thrive in El Nino years, when the water is much warmer, while the group without the accent prefers the colder waters of normal years.

Whitehead acknowledges that not everyone agrees with his conclusions about whale culture. But if he's right, it's good news for a young killer whale named Luna, who was found separated from his pod in July of 2001. "His situation looked pretty dire over the summer because he was bothering a lot of boats to the point of endangering people and himself," says Howard Garrett, an animal sociologist at the Orca Network.

But Garrett says there's hope for Luna, whom scientists will try to reunite with his family sometime this summer, because another whale called Springer was reunited with her pod and was able to fit in just fine. Garrett says whales reunite quickly enough, "will re-learn how to be with their family, how to behave how to swim along, of course how to catch fish, and all the rituals and all the other kinds of behaviors that they do."

This research was funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.

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