Culture Club: Time to let the cetaceans in?

Up until recently, culture has been thought of as a primarily human characteristic. However, recent studies shine a light on the fact that non-human animals including Cetaceans (dolphins and whales), may also possess it. They live in tightly-knit social communities, exhibit complex social behaviours, talk to one another and even have pod-specific dialects! A lot of compelling evidence points to this incredible group of marine mammals having rich human-like cultures of their own, with this having important implications for their conservation and welfare. 

What is culture? 

The Center for Advance Research on Language Acquisition defines culture as “shared patterns of behaviours and interactions, cognitive constructs and understandings that are learned by socialization. Thus, it can be seen as the growth of a group identity fostered by social patterns unique to the group.”

Scientists have long avoided the subject of culture among whales and other non-human animals, but examples of this certainly do exist and some evidence is truly compelling. Far from being solely human, culture has now been observed in insects, rats, fish, land mammals, primates and cetaceans. It may be time to rethink what it means to have culture and consider that we may share it with other non-human beings. 

Humpback calf

Examples of non-human culture

Two landmark studies led by researchers from the University of St.Andrews found cultural conformity (the agreement between a being’s behaviour and the standard determined by a group or a culture) within two very different groups of animals: vervet monkeys and humpback whales. The former study found juvenile vervet monkeys to exhibit a preference for non-bitter food as opposed to bitter-tasting food after their parents developed the same inclination in a previous controlled experiment. The latter study focused on a tradition invented by humpbacks – namely a feeding technique called bubble feeding – whereby the whale blows bubbles around a shoal of fish, confusing and herding them until it charges into the bubble net and devours the prey. In 1980, one whale put a twist on this technique, adding multiple slaps of the tail before blowing bubbles, a method termed lobtail feeding. The advantages of this new approach puzzled scientists for a long time but seemed to coincide with a decrease in the humpback’s favourite prey, herring, and an increase in sand lance. Observers soon began to notice a spread in lobtail feeding, and, after researching a 27-year database on whale behaviour, found that lobtail feeding had spread to 37% of the population. Up to 87% of the whales that adopted the technique did so by associating with another whale already familiar with the method. Both studies provide strong evidence of cultural transmission and social learning.

Humpback whale bubble-net feeding

Cetacean culture and brain size

A 2017 study published in Nature, Ecology & Evolution was the first of its kind to demonstrate data on the relationship between Cetacean culture and brain size. The study presented a compilation of 90 different species of dolphins, whales and porpoises, demonstrating how these animals have sophisticated social skills, many of which resemble human culture. The study illustrated that these cognitive capacities have a strong link to encephalisation (brain expansion). The list of behaviours found to resemble humans and other primates was extensive and included:

  • complex alliance relationships — working together for mutual benefit
  • social transfer of hunting techniques — teaching how to hunt and using tools
  • cooperative hunting
  • complex vocalizations, including regional group dialects — ‘talking’ to each other
  • vocal mimicry and ‘signature whistles’ unique to individuals — using ‘name’ recognition
  • interspecific cooperation with humans and other species — working with different species
  • alloparenting — looking after youngsters that aren’t their own
  • social play

Dr Suzanne Shultz, an evolutionary biologist from Manchester’s School of Earth and Environmental Science, commented: “As humans, our ability to socially interact and cultivate relationships has allowed us to colonise almost every ecosystem and environment on the planet. We know whales and dolphins also have exceptionally large and anatomically sophisticated brains and, therefore, have created a similar marine based culture.”

The researchers used the data to examine the social brain hypothesis (SBH) and cultural brain hypothesis (CBH). These are evolutionary theories that were originally developed as an explanation for large brains among primates and land mammals. They state that large brains developed as an evolutionary response to complex and information-rich social environments, but have never before been applied to test intelligent marine mammals.

The different brain structures of cetaceans lead many scientists to doubt their ability to achieve higher cognitive and social skills. However, studies like the aforementioned one, seem to prove otherwise, giving rise to a new question: How can these diverse patterns of brain structure give rise to very similar cognitive and social skills?

Bottlenose dolphins in the Red Sea

Secrets of the whales

Brian Skerry’s new National Geographic documentary Secrets of the Whales also takes a dive into whale culture unvailing many novel and previously undocumented behaviours. The documentary explores the social structures and skills of five whale species: orcas, humpbacks, belugas, narwhals and sperm whales. The series explores each species in close detail, providing examples of whale culture.

The series lets us see how whales experience seemingly human emotions such as grief, joy, compassion, and love. The very first episode shows the devastating mourning of a killer whale mother carrying her dead calf on her head for weeks after the juvenile died. This behaviour, termed epimeletic, refers to this type of interaction and demonstrates the strong bond to a dead member of the pod. We also see a killer whale trying to share its stingray dinner with Brian Skerry, in what can only be understood as an act of compassion, as well as location-specific diets among orca pods, empathetic belugas which adopt a lost narwhal, and sperm whales which isolate themselves through specific dialects. Most extraordinarily, we witness male humpbacks composing songs off the coast of Western Australia only to be heard, remixed and reused by whales in waters on the other side of the world in a first-of-its-kind, non-human cultural revolution! As James Cameron, the documentary’s executive producer puts it: “that’s not just culture – that’s pop culture!”.

Beluga whale arriving in the Arctic

Cultural conservatism

All of this evidence isn’t just eye-opening, it is also crucial when considering the conservation of these species. For whales, if a population is divided into cultural subgroups, then conservation efforts that target only one group could lead to a loss of diversity as each of these subdivisions is characterised by specific dialects, songs and behaviours. Many cetacean species are also matrilineal, meaning females stay with their mothers and form groups called social units. The females travel, socialise, forage and learn from each other and the wisest grandmother leads the clan, passing on knowledge and teaching her successor. This means protecting these individuals should be a priority to allow for continued vertical cultural transmission.

Also important to consider is horizontal cultural transmission which can make a species more adept at adapting to anthropogenic change. It has been suggested that if animals can learn from each other, they can acclimate to a changing environment more quickly than if only natural selection were at play. An example of this is the population-level spread of long-line depredation by killer whales in Prince William Sound.

A killer whale surfaces next to a longline vessel with a Patagonian toothfish in her mouth that she has just removed from a hook

Stable vertical cultures, however, have quite the opposite effect. These are transmitted between generations and may make species maladaptive to change and confound range recovery, reintroductions and translocations. As an example, if, due to cultural traditions, orcas continue to use areas of their habitat despite heavy vessel traffic, sewage or noise pollution, their affinity to tradition could dominate over instinctive avoidance of noxious environmental conditions.

Many other examples of cultural conservatism issues exist, emphasising how crucial it is for culture to form a part of the conservation biology of these species. The aforementioned studies and examples provide insight into the rich and complex lives of cetaceans and cast doubt on the notion that culture is a solely human phenomenon. Perhaps it is time to acknowledge culture within cetaceans and other animal groups, embed this into conservation efforts, use this knowledge to improve animal welfare and recognise the similarities between ourselves and other beings instead of focusing on our differences.

Male narwhals caress one another with their tusks in Admiralty Inlet, Nunavut, Canada

Maybe it is time to let others into the Culture Club…


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