Humpback Whales Inherit Behaviors And Culture From Elders

Whales, as it turns out, may adopt culture and behavior from the past just as we do as humans.

A group of humpback whales in the Gulf of Maine have been sharing a new feeding behavior called lobtail feeding, where the whale slaps the surface of the water with its tail to intimidate its prey from jumping out of the water to escape.

Then it forms bubbles around the prey so they get close together, and swallows them. Without slapping its tail, this is called bubble-net feeding.

Lobtail feeding was first observed in 1980, on one whale. Since then, 278 whales have been seen using the technique, out of the 700 or so humpback whales in the area.

Marine Biologist at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland and co-author of the study Luke Rendell was not surprised at how effectively the whales traded information, but he was surprised by how social the sharing was, rather than being a natural instinct.

"I've been arguing for over a decade now that cultural transmission is important in cetacean [whale and dolphin] societies," Rendell said.

He also observed that the use of lobtail feeding coincided with the rise of population of sand lances, a fish native to the area. The humpback whales likely switched from eating herring to sand lances, Rendell explained.

The study showed that if a whale who had never used the technique before had been around a whale actively using it, the first whale would pick it up and begin lobtail feeding.

So this sparks the debate of whether humpback whales have culture.

Former Professor at McMaster University Bennett Galef points out that the whales could just pick up the same behavior at the same time and that it is not culture.

Conversely, Behavioral Biologist at McGill University Simon Reader sees the potential flaws in the science, but believes in the culture anyway.

“I think there’s pretty strong evidence for social learning,” he said.

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