Sperm Whales Have Local Dialects, New Study Shows


Published:

©Day Donaldson via Flickr CC

A sperm whale’s “click” is the loudest sound produced by any animal – and it has an identifying dialect. In fact, according to a study published in Nature Communications, the whales aren’t born with different vocal chords or a bit of the sea particularly suited to a certain kind of click. They simply acquire their dialects from one another in the same way you or I might have taken on our parents' accent – by copying what they hear.

Sperm whales aren’t the only animals who learn like this. I have spent time with bottlenose dolphins, for instance, in many different locations around the world. One thing that has always struck me is that while these dolphins tend to do the same thing – such as hunt fish or play together – the way they do this can differ quite drastically between populations.

In the late 1990s, Andy Whiten best articulated this “feeling” that field biologists have had for a long time in his study of chimpanzees, the first systematic look at behavioural differences between populations.

Whiten and colleagues showed different groups of chimps did the same thing in drastically different ways, for example the way they used tools to catch ants. These differences spanned the whole activity repertoire of chimpanzees and the authors posited that the best way to explain this variation was simple: chimpanzees have culture.

Are animals born cultured?

This discovery started the “culture wars”, largely between animal behaviourists and anthropologists, a debate which raised the question of when we could talk about cultural variations in animal behaviour.

A scientific approach is to make predictions we can challenge with experiments and observations. For animals to have culture, the observed differences must not be explained by any other mechanisms. The first mechanism is simply genetics: these differences could be “hardwired” in the genetic differences between populations. The second mechanism is landscape differences: for example, a monkey will not be able to crack nuts with a rock if there are no rocks to hand. So the observed differences cannot be caused by the lack of opportunity or need caused by the animal’s environment.

Since Whiten’s work, many people have registered differences in behaviour in a wide range of species, which we cannot attribute to these two factors. For example, the detailed genetic work of Michael Kruetzen and his team has helped to dispel the “hardwiring” argument for tool use in dolphins.

 


A single ‘sponging Eve’ learned to use a sponge to protect her beak – and passed the tip on to the next generation.

 

Cultural differences are something we pick up from others and pass on, it is a social process. We acquire cultural habits from our social circles and importantly by not being exposed to the way other groups do the same thing. So in order for behavioural differences to be culture, they need to be socially learned. Social learning is again a process we now know exist in many of the species we suspect have culture.

Culture can also be a hindrance to forming social relationships; in our case the simple language barrier is often limiting the social interactions individuals can have. So culture and social structure are intertwined in some ways: you are more likely to pick up the habits of individuals with whom you interact; and the more you pick up these habits, the harder it becomes to interact with others outside your group.

One big ocean – so why the different clans?

Back to whales. In the latest study, Maurício Cantor, Hal Whitehead and their colleagues show that cultural difference is the best way to explain why sperm whales live in multilevel societies. This social structure is best described as having several levels of organisation. In the case of sperm whales, individuals live with their extended families, which belong to clans. Whitehead, along with his colleagues, has elegantly shown over the past two decades that it is hard to explain the differences we observed between sperm whale clans without invoking culture.

In their new work, they show these clans are not just a passive aggregation of genetically related families. We need to invoke the influence of socially learned dialects in order to explain the observed clans which Whitehead has been following for two decades. This happened if individuals not only learned from others, but conformed to the most used dialect in their group. So clans are more likely to form because sperm whales learn dialects from their extended family. Multi-level societies emerge from cultural differences and this is another piece of evidence pointing at animal culture.

So, animals have culture. Is that culture going to look the same as ours? No. Imagine spending your time underwater with limited vision, but great hearing, and a hankering for squid. The way you are going to interact with others is going to be different, what you can do with your environment is going to be different, your opportunities are going to be different.

Different does not mean a “lesser culture”. It means that we have to work hard to leave our human references to understand that culture. Sperm whales learn from others' habits, and dialects, which are going to shape their lives and influence the structure of their societies. Their culture is unique, so is ours, and the culture of bottlenose dolphins and chimpanzees.

David Lusseau is a MASTS Senior Lecturer in Marine Top Predator Biology, University of Aberdeen.

See also:
EarthTalk: Do Animals Have Legal Rights?
EarthTalk: Navy Sonar

Edit Module
Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit Module Edit ModuleShow Tags

Daily Astrology

July 15, 2018

The morning hours unfold under a delightfully lazy void of course Leo Moon. Cloud watching, meandering Sunday drives and relaxed brunching are perfectly acceptable diversions. By early afternoon there’s a mood change. The Moon enters Virgo, setting up an…
Edit ModuleShow Tags

Alternative Health Directory

Browse all listings »

Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit ModuleShow Tags

Calendar

July 2018

Join us for a monthly gathering of like-hearted people to give and receive angelic energy healing. This session is a combination of group meditation and discussion, along with working in pairs...

Cost: Scale $5-$20 ($10 suggested)

Where:
Pathway Of Joy
884 Broadway, Suite 12
Upstairs in the Spiritual Renaissance Center building
South Portland, ME  04106
View map »


Sponsor: Pathway Of Joy
Telephone: 207-329-7192
Contact Name: Linda Huitt
Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...

This special 2-part evening offering. Earn your Integrated Energy Therapy® certification in two evenings, while leaving your summer days and weekends open to enjoy the season. Part 1 is...

Cost: $195

Where:
Pathway Of Joy
884 Broadway, Suite 12
South Portland, ME  04106
View map »


Sponsor: Pathway Of Joy
Telephone: 207-329-7192
Contact Name: Linda Huitt
Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...

What better way to end a busy day than with a little bliss. We'll support your body right where it is today and help you to open your spine to find more movement and flexibility. Begin and end...

Cost: $18

Where:
Body Love Wellness Center
484 Bedford St
East Bridgewater, MA  02333
View map »


Sponsor: Bliss Through Yoga
Telephone: 508-331-3564
Contact Name: Janice
Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...

Relax and restore this summer with free outdoor yoga classes on historic Rogers Field! We’re packing the lawn with yogis of all levels for yoga led by experienced practitioners from Dragonfly...

Cost: Free

Where:
Rogers Field
Devens, MA


Sponsor: Dragonfly Wellness Center
Telephone: 978-487-7181
Contact Name: Anne Ferguson
Website »

More information

If you are worried about getting Parkinson’s or have beginning symptoms, check out a free intro on how to rewire your brain from the inside. First and third Wednesdays of the month,...

Where:
, MA


Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...

Please note this event is held at an off-site location at the Double Tree Hilton in Danvers, MA There will be a book signing following the mediumship demonstration, and as part of your ticket...

Cost: $45

Where:
Double Tree Hotel
50 Ferncroft Road
Danvers, MA  01923
View map »


Sponsor: Circles of Wisdom
Telephone: 978-474-8010
Contact Name: Cathy Kneeland
Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...

July 20 - 22 The Chinese internal martial arts derive their extraordinary power from the conscious control of one’s subjective state-of-being and the use of jin (internal power)....

Cost: Please see our website

Where:
Eastover Estate & Retreat Center
430 East St.
Lenox, MA  01240
View map »


Telephone: 866-264-5139
Contact Name: Yingxing Wang
Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...

The mission of the 4th Annual Compassionfest is to unite like-minded people that believe in the values of being just, kindness, equality and compassion. We’ll gather for delicious vegan food...

Cost: Free

Where:
Whitneyville Cultural Commons
1253 Whitney Ave
Hamden, CT  06517
View map »


Sponsor: In Defense of Animals
Website »

More information

Saturday, July 21, 10:00am – 4:00pm & Sunday, July 22, 10am – 4:00pm With Patty Collinsworth Get the beginner certification before Linda Howe comes in person to teach a new...

Cost: $170

Where:
Circles of Wisdom
90 Main Street
Andover, MA  01810
View map »


Sponsor: Circles of Wisdom
Telephone: 978-474-8010
Contact Name: Cathy Kneeland
Website »

More information

Saturday, July 21, 10:00am – 5:30pm & Sunday, July 22, 10am – 3:30pm Instructor:  Peyton Pugmire What brings you joy and a sense of purpose?  These are your soul...

Cost: $160

Where:
Creative Spirit
80 Washington Street
Marblehead, MA  01945
View map »


Sponsor: Creative Spirit
Telephone: 617-817-4547
Website »

More information

July 21 - 22 NEMHoFest, is New England’s premiere metaphysical festival. This year’s line-up includes world renowned guest speakers and vendors from across the...

Where:
Augusta Civic Center
Augusta, ME


Website »

More information

The GFAF Expos are the greatest events on earth for those living a gluten-free or allergen-friendly lifestyle. Sample hundreds of products, meet with local and national brands, receive coupons and...

Where:
DCU Center
50 Foster Street
Worcester, MA
View map »


Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...
Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit Module Edit ModuleShow Tags