New Science in Brief

Sperm Whales' Language Reveals Hints of Culture

These deep-diving whales off the Galápagos have their own dialects, a sign that they have a culture.

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Female sperm whales and their calves swim off the coast of Pinta Island in the Galápagos.


New ways to grab dinner, the trick to using a tool, and learning the local dialect. These are behaviors that animals pick up from each other. Killer whales, chimpanzees, and birds seem to have a cultural component to their lives. Now a new study suggests that sperm whales should be added to that list.

The ocean around the Galápagos Islands hosts thousands of female sperm whales and their calves that have organized into clans with their own dialects. (Mature males congregate in colder waters near the poles.) How these clans form has been something of a mystery until now.

A study published Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications suggests that culture—behaviors shared by group members—keeps these sperm whale clans together. Specifically, these deep-diving whales have a distinct series of clicks called codas they use to communicate during social interactions.

Sperm whales with similar behaviors spend time together, and they pick up vocalizations from each other. Scientists call this social learning. Whales that "speak the same language" stick together, giving rise to the clans that researchers have observed for more than 30 years. (Read about humpback whale culture.)

Why It Matters

This is one more pillar of support for the idea that animals have culture, says lead study author Mauricio Cantor, a marine biologist at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada.

When Cantor and colleagues ran computer simulations to determine the most likely way the clans formed, factors like genetic relatedness or the transmission of information from mother to offspring couldn't explain the pattern observed in the wild. The best explanation their analysis could find was a preference in how sperm whales learned vocalizations. "Like-minded" individuals learned from each other. (Read about dolphin moms that teach their daughters to use tools.)

The Big Picture

It's fascinating to see that animals like whales display something that may seem uniquely human, Cantor says. But really, "we're not that different from them."

Killer whale pods have their own dialects, humpback whales pass on new feeding behaviors via their social networks, and chimpanzees share the secrets of tool use with their compatriots.

Cantor hopes that by learning more and more about animals, people will be moved to think about the environment and perhaps act on calls for conserving the planet.

What's Next

Cantor and colleagues plan to look back at historic data on sperm whale clans from 30 years ago and compare them with clans today. "We want to know how their [vocalizations have] changed over time."

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