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A recent study has discovered that sperm whales exist in separate groups with unique cultural identities.
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A recent study has discovered that sperm whales exist in separate groups with unique cultural identities.

A recent study has discovered that sperm whales have unique cultures within their clans, similar to those found in human societies.

Hal Whitehead, a researcher at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada, utilized hydrophones and aerial surveys to analyze the vocalizations and feeding behaviors of sperm whales. He discovered that these creatures form groups of up to 20,000 individuals.

According to a study published in the journal Royal Society Open Science, the clans were characterized by differences in their vocalizations, which were described as unique sequences of clicks resembling morse code, known as “codas”.

By mimicking human language, Whitehead and his team were able to confirm the presence of seven clans and a population of 300,000 sperm whales in the Pacific Ocean.

Whitehead commented that this number is significant for culturally defined entities that are not part of modern human ethnolinguistic groups. He also noted that while the clans may have interacted, they did not interbreed. Their sense of identity was similar to tribal communities, acknowledging and preserving their distinctions despite being of the same species.

Sperm whales possess the largest brains of any living creature. These impressive animals can grow up to 15 meters in size, weigh as much as 45 tonnes, and have the remarkable ability to submerge for up to two hours while hunting for their preferred food source, which is primarily squid. They can be found in various oceans across the globe.

Whitehead observed that the clans were predominantly led by females. Male members would make infrequent visits and only for short periods of time. Their primary role was to transfer sperm. Designated females were responsible for providing “alloparental” care by watching over the calves while their mothers went to search for food.

The paper highlighted the distinct differences between whales and humans, and also proposed interesting similarities. It was observed that sperm whale communities relied on consensus rather than hierarchical leadership when making group decisions.

As large numbers of animals migrate together, they must navigate shifting food sources and remain vigilant for predators, such as killer whales who target young sperm whales. These discussions hold significant weight, as Whitehead observed whales taking up to an hour to reach a consensus on which direction to travel.

Whitehead noted that the democracy of whales operated at a sluggish and disorganized pace, similar to our own democratic processes.

He stated that understanding the development of these extensive populations could provide insight into “human social evolution on a grand scale” in ways that are rare in other areas.

The research indicated that the whales may have been impacted by human actions. Sperm whales were heavily targeted for hunting during the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. In just the 20th century, 700,000 whales were killed in hunts conducted by various countries including Britain, Norway, the Netherlands, Russia, Japan, Canada, and Australia. Until 1971, sperm whale oil was commonly used in the automatic transmissions of American cars.

The population of great whales has increased since the ban on their killing in 1982. However, since sperm whales can live up to 80 years, there is a possibility that they may still hold traumatic memories from the hunting practices of the 20th century, according to the research paper.

The Guardian was informed by Whitehead that populations exposed to intense modern whaling have shown signs of decreased fertility and broken family structures. Additionally, the size of the animals has also decreased.

Whitehead, who has been researching sperm whales in their natural habitat since 1985, prefers the term “whale nations” to describe the size of different groups within the species. He drew parallels to human history and early times to better comprehend the evolution of these creatures. For instance, he compared a specific whale clan living in a confined region, like the Mediterranean, to a population of humans on a secluded island, such as Australia.

On the other hand, in more expansive regions like the Pacific, where multiple clans coexist in the same surroundings, “culture is the only plausible reason for the distinctions between clans”, similar to how a country may be inhabited by individuals who speak different languages.

Whitehead acknowledged that research into the whales’ deeper prehistory – since the species evolved 24m years ago – may be as difficult as the study of human prehistory. But he said he believed “patterns in genetics and linguistics, coupled with measures of environmental change” could reveal “an extraordinary amount”.

One could argue that the history of whales began when humans began documenting them,” he stated. “The prehistory of sperm whales is likely just as intriguing, but it may be more difficult to imagine compared to that of humans.”

Source: theguardian.com