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Dead sperm whale in The Wash, East Anglia, England. © CSIP-ZSL.

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Sperm whale (physeter macrocephalus) Gulf of California. The tail of a sperm whale.

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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.