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Whale Culture is Real

New insights into language, communication, learning

They have the biggest brains on Earth. Their clans have thousands of members, covering thousands of miles. And a new study shows that, yes, they have cultures that are passed down from generation to generation, just like humans.

“As far as we know, these are the largest cultures on Earth, aside from human ethnicities,” said Hal Whitehead of Dalhousie University, who led the study. “They may have thousands or tens of thousands of members, covering thousands of kilometers of ocean.”

The researchers analyzed sound recordings and skin samples from 194 sperm whales in the southwest Pacific Ocean. This enabled them to compare what linked the whales genetically (DNA from the skin samples), with what linked them culturally (their languages).

“If the differences were genetic, this would make the differences more traditionally biological. We’d have two different subspecies,” Whitehead said. “It’s culture, not genetics.”

The researchers also looked at whether geography might play a role, with each clan responding to local environments.

But that doesn’t seem to be a factor: Clans can occupy vast and overlapping swaths of ocean, not a little unlike indigenous human tribes in pre-colonial North America.

“This is like a situation that happens more rarely with humans, where you have several ethnic groups living in the same area but maintaining their identity,” Whitehead said.

For more information, read the story in Wired. The full study can be found in Behavior Genetics. And there’s more about whale language here.