National Geographic Daily News
A pair of humpback whales bubble feed in Grandidier Passage, Antarctica.

A pair of humpback whales bubble-net feeding off the coast of western Antarctica.

Photograph by Yva Momatiuk and John Eastcott, Minden Pictures/Corbis

Jane J. Lee

National Geographic News

Published April 25, 2013

Whether it's learning a new song, figuring out how to use tools to forage for food, or picking up the local customs, learning from others is an important part of life for many animals, including people.

The idea of a culture or traditions—behavior shared by an identifiable group and acquired through social learning—in cetaceans, a group including whales and dolphins, has been controversial.

But a new study finds strong evidence that a group of humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) in the Gulf of Maine (map) is sharing a newly observed feeding behavior via their social networks. (See related blog: "Sharks Have Social Networks, Learn From Friends.")

That behavior, called lobtail feeding, was first recorded in one whale in the Gulf of Maine in 1980. Since then, 278 humpback whales—out of about 700 observed individuals that frequent the Stellwagen Bank (map) area—have employed the strategy, according to the study, published this week in the journal Science.

"I've been arguing for over a decade now that cultural transmission is important in cetacean societies," said study co-author Luke Rendell, a marine biologist at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

Though he wasn't surprised the whales traded information, he was surprised at how strongly his data said the whales learned the new feeding strategy socially, rather than because of other factors like having a genetic predisposition to the behavior.

Humpback Hunters

Lobtail feeding is a variation on a technique called bubble-net feeding, which is used by humpbacks around the world.

In bubble-net feeding, a whale blows bubbles into a kind of net surrounding the prey, corralling them into dense schools. Then the whale lunges up through the school with its jaws wide open, scooping up mouthfuls of food. (Watch a video that shows humpbacks bubble-net feeding.)

In lobtail feeding, the humpback slaps the surface of the water one to four times with the underside of its tail before diving down and blowing the bubble net. Rendell speculates the slaps may keep its sand lance prey from jumping out of the water, away from the whale.

"The origin of this behavior was strongly associated with the collapse of herring stocks and a boom in sand lance stock," said Rendell. So he and his team suggest that lobtail feeding came about when humpbacks switched from hunting herring to catching sand lances, a type of fish.

To track the spread of lobtail feeding in the whale population, the researchers combined data on fisheries stocks with a sampling of a long-term dataset (1980-2007) on humpback whale observations. The data are compiled by trained observers from the Whale Center of New England.

Not only did the use of lobtail feeding increase with corresponding peaks in sand lance populations in the '80s, Rendell and his colleagues found that knowledge of the new feeding behavior mirrored the loose social connections among the whales.

Basically, a naive whale—an individual who didn't exhibit lobtailing behavior—was more likely to start lobtailing if it associated with a whale that did use the new technique.

Culture Debate

The new study is a good proof of concept showing scientists can use this kind of network analysis in looking at questions of traditions and social learning, said Bennett Galef, a retired professor at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, who specializes in social learning.

But Galef, who was not involved in the study, cautioned that a behavior can spread through a population without social learning.

It could be that since these animals move around together, they just pick up the same behavior at the same time, said Galef. "That's not culture."

Experiments can home in on how information spreads throughout a population better than observational studies can, he added. But Galef acknowledges that you can't exactly bring whales into a laboratory.

Simon Reader, a behavioral biologist at McGill University in Quebec, Canada, agreed that observational studies can be problematic. For instance, it's possible there's an alternate explanation for the spread of lobtail feeding in these humpback whales, he said.

"But I think there's pretty strong evidence for social learning."

A Daniel Knaub
A Daniel Knaub

I have recorded this lobtail feeding behavior by 100's of humpback whales in the Gulf of Maine.  This video is stored in the Whale & Marine Life Video Archive at The Whale Video Company.  It consists of all the sightings from 17,096 whale watch trips.

You can watch Bandit demonstrate lobtail feeding (and he is a master of it) at 3:52 on this youtube clip.  You'll also see the closest breaching ever recorded.

Kristy Cole
Kristy Cole

I am certainly not a scientist, but when I read articles like this I think back on what I was taught as a child; humans are different because we are the only ones that use tools (not really true).  Then, it was only language (sure, monkeys didn't write a book).  Now it is culture.  It seems to me that as long as we use our measuring stick other species will come up short.  I understand the need for empirical evidence, and applaud and support your work, however I think a reasonable gut-check will lead most normal folks to know that this "culture" phenom is true.   Honestly, what I think is that we are so into over-analyzing our interpretation of our world we may not consider how hard-wired we are (gasp, that can't be right).

Metin Gunduz
Metin Gunduz

Part II (final) of the comment BUT as we see and observe clearly without any reasonable doubt not only –homo sapiens- but all species has a different so called LEARNED BEHAVIOR FROM GENERATION AFTER GENERATION rather than inherited genes(hard wares) , so we can call this learned behavior as SOFTWARE ( analogy to computer terminology) like language-religious believes-mythologies-and of course the culture in this case of ‘humpback whales’ ... In reality this learned behavior ( SOFTWARE) preserved from generation after generation very much effects the ultimate survival of all socialized species ( not only Homo Sapiens but all social species ) in our planet .. So ‘deeper’ understanding of the evolutionary concept of Survival of the fittest includes both HARDWARE (Genome) +SOFTWARE( learned and preserved behavior generation after generation of ‘socialized species’ language(communication) ,religious/mythological believes ,culture ) ..

Metin Gunduz
Metin Gunduz

Part I of the comment Very good observations , all evolutionary scientists should take o notice here and comprehend the deep meaning of ‘What is the ultimate survival of species depends on ? ... Is has been simplistic understanding among many scientists since Charles Darwin that we have been assuming all along that the HARDWARE(Genes) and their ‘variability’ based on ‘mutations’ and ultimate genetic (DNA) differences in each species - like a - bell curve - Gauss’s Normal Distribution , DNA differences -so to speak- in both ends of the spectrum ultimately decides the ‘fittest ‘ and ultimately survives the ‘bottle necks’ ... please second part ..

Bob Hartmann
Bob Hartmann

Excellent article, very enlighting. I wonder how the Japanese, who feel that eating whales is a cultural entitlement, would feel if they know their meal had a cultural history perhaps longer and richer than their own?

john h.
john h.

Instinctive behaviour in animals is reinforced by its success in genetic terms. What might be called "cultural" has a basis in genes. If you didn't have the genes to have a voice box for example you could not participate in the culture of speaking. Many of the higher animals exhibit what is termed cultural behaviour that is behaviour that they can copy and learn from their fellow species members and would not do if they were not shown it and could not copy it. Or at least they may do it poorly on the basis of some instinct. Typically cats "teach" by showing their offspring elements of successful hunting behaviour.

The key difference between humans and other animals is that they have the ability to universally copy and imitate almost any behaviour. This instinctive and innate ability has proved advantageous to human ancestors such that it has driven increased brain size, speech and so on whilst the armoury of natural weaponry has withered (claws, teeth).

Culture can be said to exist as pathways in the brains of animals especially humans. Attempts have been made to describe the unit of culture equivalent to the gene as the "meme", a word coined by Richard Dawkins. I suggest the best book on this subject is "The Meme Machine" by Susan Blackmore. 

Dawkins postulated and popularised the notion that genes are a sort of "immortal" strand of self replicators. It is at least easy to think of them as having physical existence. Blackmore makes a similar postulation in relation to memes ie that they are a new self replicator. They come together to form speech, writing, artifacts, tools, religions, songs, ways of earning a living and so on. Behind those cultural manifestations lie individual patterns of neural firings that can be passed from creature to creature by copying behaviour, if successful handed down from generation to generation.

So do whales have culture? To the extent that behaviours are copied using a copying instinct as opposed to an instinct for the behaviour itself, then they must do. Only humans seem to have the capability of a universal copying instinct though. To that extent I would perhaps what happens in other animals as "proto-culture".

Liam Martin
Liam Martin

I do find this interesting...but I have to admit that I often dislike the implication that if cetaceans (or any other animals) do not exhibit 'culture' as we humans know it then it is just not as interesting. If they are merely adapting their behaviour to their situation (very well!) then it is somehow less amazing. 

The term culture has changed over time even in the anthropocene, and likely will again. It is all about intention I guess. If a whale 'intends' to teach a younger whale then we feel like it is more like us, which we find amazing, but if a whale just does it because it's what whales do, then we think it is somehow less beautiful, or not as worthy of our attention.

Our own culture may even be an illusion, namely the illusion of control, that we can sculpt our future with intentionality and forward planning.

The odds are not in favour of humpbacks ever having a clue what 'culture' is, so it feels like we are using it as a term to try and understand what they do in human terms, which is impossible really, because they're whales.

Anyway I'm not trying to be controversial, I just always want to bring this sort of thing up bit never do...

Katie Grove-Velasquez
Katie Grove-Velasquez

If mothers are observed teaching their young calves different behaviors, then why not feeding or catching behaviors.  We know humpbacks and other cetaceans have many styles to capture prey, and certainly young whales standing by will observe and learn.  Other species do same, i.e. chimps, wolves, etc.

Katie Grove-Velasquez
Katie Grove-Velasquez

If mothers are observed teaching their young calves different behaviors, then why not feeding or catching behaviors.  We know humpbacks and other cetaceans have many styles to capture prey, and certainly young whales standing by will observe and learn.  Other species do same, i.e. chimps, wolves, etc.

Wallace Bradley
Wallace Bradley

Although I do not discount the possibility that cetaceans have culture, I do not find this particular behavior to necessarily be evidence of that. I have many years of experience dealing with all types of animals & have noticed that any activity that puts food in the belly will be copied by other animals, sometimes of differing species, in a very short time.

Jay Clemons
Jay Clemons

This is very exciting evidence of cetacean culture! Despite the article's obligatory caveat about a "non-cultural" explanation for this adaptation, that likelihood is very near zero I think. Thanks NatGeo for publicizing this finding!

Kimberly Ray
Kimberly Ray

@john h.   Hi John, Im Kim.  I would like to talk to you more about this subject.  I am researching the social structure and communication of cetaceans.  Feel free to find me on Facebook or email me at

john h.
john h.

@Liam Martin Liam,

Not sure if you check back against your comments I posted mine after and then thought it might be of interest to you.  If you have not done so, I do suggest reading Susan Blackmore's book. (She has also written about consciousness.) Anyway, the point you are making is quite apposite. 

Trying to be succinct I would say it is a question of who or what if anything is the individual. Suggesting that anything, even humans "intend" anything gets into deep philosophical territory around individuality. All ones intentions for example feel as if they are your own, but they are really the product of your ancestry, your cultural and biological and environmental situation. It feels as if there is a "you" inside your body deciding things but really there is no evidence that there is, and intentions or cultures are just the product of a "bunch of stuff" coming together temporarily. I find the notion of cultural units (memes) analogous to genes, pervading individuals an interesting one myself. They are in effect things with a "life" of their own, that are able to replicate in an environment (the human brain) that they have shaped (not with any intention, it is just a process) and which in turn facilitates their further survival. 

Memes are not totally analogous to genes. They can replicate by indirect contact I suppose for a start. Also memes in animals such as whales can only be passed on by a method of "copy the product". Copy the product is a bit like say learning a tune by watching and listening to a fellow musician. Animal communication is a bit like analog data such as clocks or such like. Humans have a completely "digital" means of communication and so can not only copy behaviour but copy behaviour from "instructions". Copying the instructions to continue with the music analogy is like reading music and playing the tune. That is what makes us different and why our culture is developed to an order of magnitude greater when compared to any other species.


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