A new study suggests young sperm whales pick up their dialects through cultural learning.

A new study suggests sperm whales pick up their dialects through cultural learning, adding more weight to the theory that culture is not a uniquely human trait
Photo Credit: Chris Bangs/Guam Variety News/Associated Press

Whales too have “culture”

People tend to adopt habits from those they associate with. This could be things like clothing, or speech patterns and dialects.

A Canadian study of sperm whales has found out this “cultural” adaptation occurs with the whales as well. Also in human society those individuals that “understand” each other tend to associate together within a wider interactive society.  And so do whales.

Biologist and PhD candidate Mauricio Cantor is the lead author of a research paper studying speech and habits of two groups of whales in the Galapagos.

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Mauricio Cantor, PhD candidate in biology at Dalhousie University in halifax. His study of whales show they have a cultural adaptation to learn the speech pattern of their specific clan, and that it requires in part, an actual
Mauricio Cantor, PhD candidate in biology at Dalhousie University in halifax. His study of whales show they have a cultural adaptation to learn the speech pattern of their specific clan, and that it requires in part, an actual “desire” to learn the pattern © supplied

The research was published in the September 8 edition of  the science journal Nature Communications, under the title, ”Multilevel animal societies can emerge from cultural transmission”

Whales are known to have large brains and complex societies, and it seems they have other cultural similarities with humans.

Groups of females and calves live together for many years and communicate using pattern of clicks, called codas. These are distinct from the sounds made for echo-location. The codas are how they talk to each other on the surface between dives.

So the mothers, grandmothers, young, aunts, and some friends, are swimming around together and chit-and-chatting for their entire lives.  But while they associated with all whales, sometimes gathering in large groups, they seem to interact more with those whales who communicate using the same types of codas.   Unlike on land where there are physical barriers which have resulted in different accents, dialects and language, such barriers don’t exist for the whales, yet they have evolved into clans with unique conversational “accents” or dialects.

WHALE CODAS- conversation among several sperm whales

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Cantor collected samples of sperm whale conversations from groups in the Galapagos. The clicks made on the surface the conversations, or codas, are different from the sound made when echo locating for obstacles and food under water.
Cantor collected recordings of sperm whale conversations from groups in the Galapagos. The clicks made on the surface the conversations, or codas, are different from the sound made when echo locating for obstacles and food under water. © Mauricio Cantor, Whitehead Lab, Dalhousie University, Halifax Nova Scotia

So there is a special structure: i.e. the vocal clan, composed of whales from different social units but with similar dialects or accents, which vary slightly from other clans.  An occasional large gathering of whales would then have several clans.

It’s all whale conversation, and the researchers can’t know what they’re communicating to each other, but they can determine there are specific differences to the language within each clan.

A social unit might consist of around 12 whales,  that live and have moved around together for years while a clan may contain several social units.

The study used  18 years of recorded conversations of clans of whales and then integrating that into computer modelling with simulated  groups of whales over 1,000 years they sought to find what factors would generate the differences in vocal patterns they had collected in their recordings.

A pod of sperm whales off the Galapagos. The females and young tend to stick closer together while adult males tend to be more loners. A social unit can consist of 6-12 animals, while a clan can consist of several social units
A pod of sperm whales off the Galapagos. The females and young tend to stick closer together while adult males tend to be more loners. A social unit can consist of 6-12 animals, while a clan can consist of several social units © Mauricio Cantor, Whitehead Lab, Dalhousie University,Halifax Nova Scotia

What they found was that the evolution of different  vocal patterns were created through “learning” from those around them.  As social culture is at the foundation of culture, the clans with specific dialects represent a cultural segregation. And that a factor within the learning was that a young whale would, among other things, need a desire to learn the group codas.

Even though the young whales could hear codas from distant clans and whales, they learned their dialect from their own group.

Whitehead Lab, Dalhousie University

A clan arises when whales- preferentially- learned the vocalizations of other whales they behave similarly to themselves and that they wanted to associate with.

While human cultures are diverse and unique, the finding shows that biased social learning, considered a key feature of human culture, may not be as unique in nature as previously thought and adds to the evidence that it may be at play in other animal populations in nature.

This male sperm whale was one of many Mauricio Cantor observed off the Galapogos Islands in 2013. The males tend to live more isolated lives, while the females stick closer together and no so far out in the ocean. They can communicate over vast distance to find each other, but tend to associate more with clans with the same cultural affinity ie
This male sperm whale was one of many Mauricio Cantor observed off the Galapogos Islands in 2013. The males tend to live more isolated lives, while the females stick closer together and no so far out in the ocean. They can communicate over vast distance to find each other, but tend to associate more with clans with the same cultural affinity ie “accent” © Mauricio Cantor / The Whitehead Lab at Dalhousie University

Cantor points out the finding  “is not to suggest that whale culture equals the diverse, symbolic and cumulative cultures of humans. But it is still fascinating that a society of completely different animals, living in a completely different environment, can have striking similarities with our own”.

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Posted in Animals, Environment, International, Science and Technology, Society

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