The debate as to whether or not whales and dolphins should be kept in captivity often centers on cetacean intelligence; dolphins, in particular, are frequently listed amongst the most intelligent animals, along with humans, the great apes and elephants. Recent research suggests that a high-functioning brain is not the only characteristic that we share with cetaceans, however. In January, scientists Dr. Hal Whitehead and Dr. Luke Rendell published a revolutionary book entitled The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins, which posits the theory that cetaceans use their advanced communication skills to develop their own distinct cultures.
Whitehead and Rendell define culture as “behavior shared within a community, not through genetic information, but through social learning.” Whitehead and Rendell have been studying cetacean populations, particularly sperm whales, for a cumulative total of 50 years. The book is based on their personal observations of whales and dolphins in their natural environment, and represents a breakthrough in the way that science interprets the flow of information from one animal to another. According to Whitehead, biologists have previously concentrated on genes as the method of information transfer between individual animals, “but there are other ways in which this can happen, and culture is one of them.”
While studying sperm whales in the Galapagos, Whitehead discovered two distinct groups, each of which behaved quite differently from the other. At first, he assumed that the two groups were separate sub-species, which could have provided a genetic reason for their distinct behaviors. However, upon discovering that the two groups were genetically identical, the research group concluded that the whales were simply displaying two different cultures. Whitehead hypothesizes that the vastness of cetaceans’ ocean habitat is a contributor to their propensity for developing unique cultures. Whales and dolphins rely heavily on their social hierarchies and interactions, because they are the only constant in an otherwise ever-changing world. If an individual learns a new behavior, it is quickly shared throughout the rest of the group, thanks to the cetaceans’ well-developed communication skills and high level of intelligence.
There are countless examples of cetacean culture; one of the most famous is the song of the humpback whale. According to a study conducted by the University of Queensland that analyzed 745 songs from six South Pacific humpback populations, these whales follow musical trends in much the same way that humans do. Humpbacks in a single area sing the same song, until one revolutionary whale makes a change, which the others then learn and replicate. According to the study, song trends change every two to three months, and once a new one is adopted, it spreads from west to east across thousands of miles, all the way from the east coast of Australia to French Polynesia. According to Whitehead and Rendell, “there is no way even the most outlandish scenarios can explain this pattern with genetics alone.”
Other examples of cetacean culture include the distinct hunting methods used by separate orca populations around the world. In Argentina, for example, orcas deliberately beach themselves in order to attack sea-lion colonies, a behavior that mother whales have been seen teaching their young. In 2005, a captive orca at Marineland in Ontario learned that by regurgitating fish at the surface, it could attract sea gulls and then eat them. Within months, five other orcas kept at Marineland had copied and perfected the art of supplementing their diet with fresh bird meat. There are also plenty of examples of learned culture amongst dolphin populations. In Shark Bay, Australia, a small group of bottlenose dolphins have learned to use sea sponges to protect their beaks while foraging for food. These sponge-using dolphins have formed a clique that sees them associate only briefly with non sponge-using dolphins.
That whales and dolphins are cultured is not merely a theory of scientists like Dr. Whitehead and Dr. Rendell. Last November, the existence of distinct cultures amongst whale and dolphin populations was officially recognized for the first time at the 11th Conference of the Parties to the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS). According to the terms of the conference, the 120 countries that are part of CMS will now have to consider relevant “units of culture” when deciding upon conservation measures, “so as to protect behaviors that are passed on within particular groups of dolphins and whales, not through genetic information encoded in the animals’ DNA, but through social learning.” Effectively, this means that the conservation status of different cultural groups will be separately assessed and acted upon.
In The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins, Whitehead and Rendell write that understanding cetacean culture will affect the way we view our responsibilities towards them. With the realization that whales and dolphins interact within their social groups in much the same way that humans do comes the realization that they must also be affected in the same way by death or separation, which only adds weight to the argument that there can be no justification for killing or keeping whales and dolphins in captivity.