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Whale culture and conservation: to infinity and beyond …

In 1977, the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft launched, carrying with them the song of humpback whales and greetings in 55 human languages. Why was humpback whale song chosen to accompany this time capsule of life on Earth being projected to the outer reaches of our solar system and beyond?

Perhaps because it is haunting, perhaps because it provides some hint about the diversity of life on our planet, some tantalizing indicator of other lifeforms to elicit a response from distant, alien intelligences. Or perhaps, because the people who pulled together the content of this evocative golden disc, a snap-shot of sounds and images ‘selected to portray the diversity of life and culture on Earth’ somehow presaged that humpback song itself is not only an indicator of Earth’s rich genetic diversity, but that it is also an important example of non-human culture on our blue planet, of worthy interest to any alien intelligence.

Grey whale eye

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Increased understanding

Fast forward some 44 years and our species has come to understand more about some of the diverse intelligence on our planet and that whales and dolphins exhibit culture in many different ways, from song to migration, to the learning of foraging strategies and even tool use. Emerging understanding of the breadth of whale and dolphin culture, gives rise to one very important question:  how might whale culture influence their conservation, in either positive or negative ways? Is it possible that whale culture might provide opportunities to learn behaviours that are critical for survival in changing habitats, or might whale culture create vulnerabilities, or even inhibit the spread of behaviour that is mission critical to survival? It turns out that both are true.

Forks, chopsticks and hands

If you’ve seen the extraordinary new National Geographic series Secrets of the Whales, you’ll have seen the beautiful, compelling footage and storytelling which provides insights into the lives of whales from a new perspective. The series is not intended to be a scientific exploration, but provides some wonderful examples of whale and dolphin culture: from orcas in New Zealand who have learnt to hunt sting rays without getting barbed; to beluga whales in Hudson Bay, Alaska communicating to navigate the ice, shallows and sandbars; to singing and bubblenet feeding humpback whales.  Shane Gero, who founded the Dominica Sperm Whale Project and whose work WDC supporters will have read about in their Whale & Dolphin magazine notes that behaviour is what you do, whereas culture is how  you do it. In Secrets of the Whale, he gives the example that all humans eat, but some eat with a fork, or chopsticks, or their hands, depending on their culture.

Decades of research, from many researchers in far flung and often inhospitable conditions, has enabled this epiphany of whale culture to be presented so aesthetically. Viewers are asked to consider whether thousands of years of tradition could change in an instant as the result of human activity. But one significant question that is posed, which is left hanging – is what do revelations about whale and dolphin culture means for their conservation? ….

Sperm whale
© Douglas Hoffman

How can culture influence conservation?

In order to address this very question and to try to drill down a bit further into how whale and dolphin culture may be important for their conservation, WDC jointly hosted a workshop in 2014 with the Convention on Migratory Species, bringing together an international group of experts to examine this issue more closely. This workshop was the catalyst for an extensive process of exploring the many ways in which animal culture, from a wide range of species, interfaces with the conservation of migratory species, from examining how we delineate populations, to how conservation interventions are undertaken.

Following a second workshop in 2018, which examined evidence from a much broader range of vertebrate species, a framework was developed to assist conservationists and researchers to view their data through the lens of animal culture. The objective of this work is to present the evidence and start researchers thinking about how interesting information on animal culture may already be lurking in their data sets and to think about how culturally transmitted behaviour may be import for conserving the species that they study.

Inspiring new ways of thinking and protecting

In panel discussion with Brian Scary (photographer) and James Cameron (director) following the premier of the Nat Geo series, it was noted that creating the documentary was a ‘profoundly personal journey’ and that they hoped that by filming the personal stories of whales, using the lens of whale culture, it might help viewers see the ocean differently and stimulate people to think differently about  conservation. In the framework paper recently published, we aim for exactly the same – using the lens of animal culture to improve the conservation of a host of different non-human species. The science in this field is moving apace and a recent analysis of old whaling records, revealed, somewhat harrowingly, that naive sperm whales likely learned from experienced whales to avoid whaling vessels.

The Nat Geo filmmakers hoped that greater illumination of whales’ lives might lead to better conservation - a worthy sentiment, as it will undoubtedly be a combination of scientific understanding and cultural shifts in our human societies which will be required to fully grasp the implication of ‘alien’ cultures on our own planet.

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