May 6, 2021

Whales and Dolphins: Cultures of the Deep

During the 18th and 19th centuries, sperm whales were hunted down mercilessly with harpoons. But after a period of very prolific hunting, the success of the whalers dropped dramatically. What happened? Very simply, the whales devised a strategy to thwart the whalers and taught it to other whale populations.

In this webinar, we talk with Dr. Hal Whitehead, the world’s leading researcher on sperm whales about how these highly intelligent denizens of the deep use cultural transmission to protect each other and pass on their knowledge to future generations. In a recent paper, Dr. Whitehead and his co-authors showed that the sperm whales learned defensive behaviors that reduced their risk of being killed during those early hunting expeditions. And the whales who experienced and survived a hunt passed their strategies on to other sperm whale populations. This kind of learning was very rapid. And not too long ago, it was considered taboo to talk about, let alone study, culture in other animals. Culture – the transmission of learned behaviors – was considered unique to humans. But field studies have developed to the point where the evidence for cultural transmission among many nonhuman species has become undeniable. And today, the study of cultures is accepted as integral to an understanding of cetaceans, great apes and many other animals. Orcas, sperm whales, beluga whales, bottlenose dolphins, and many other cetaceans possess unique cultural traditions that differentiate groups on the basis of dialect, social norms, hunting strategies and other dimensions of their social lives.

In this webinar, Dr. Lori Marino, President of the Whale Sanctuary Project, will be talking with Dr. Whitehead about his pioneering work on culture in dolphins and whales that has brought to light how sophisticated and intelligent these aquatic mammals are. They’ll discuss other forms of dolphin and whale culture in communication, social relationships, feeding, and even tool use. And they’ll talk about how, because each cetacean group is a unique culture, when that group is endangered so are all the traditions and wisdom they’ve developed – never to be replaced.

More information can be found here