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Cultural phenomenon – Marine megafauna

whales and culture

Is it possible for whales and dolphins to have their own ‘culture’?  Michelle Fournet explores this question further…

Album cover of Roger Payne’s 1970 LP. Due to this record humpback whales are arguably to most listened to whales on earth.

Album cover of Roger Payne’s 1970 LP. Due to this record humpback whales are arguably to most listened to whales on earth.

One of the special things about studying marine megafauna is how completely and unequivocally devoted their fans are. Judging from the popularity of Roger Payne’s best selling 1970 LP “Song of the Humpback Whale”, I think it’s fair to rank humpback whales among rock idols like David Bowie, Mick Jagger, and Madonna in terms of popularity. I feel quite confident, however, that the number of students willing to dedicate their careers to spying or eavesdropping on whales, is higher than those that are actually interested in a year long appointment, shadowing Cher.

Whales are a part of our human culture; this is unequivocal. The traditions of Inupiat whalers are passed between generations, skills are shared among whaling teams, and successful bowhead whale hunts are the inspiration for song, story and festival. Historically, the oil of whales has shaped the course of human history. The first street lights to brighten the dark streets of London burned whale oil; the city saw an almost immediate drop in crime as a result. Spermaceti literally greased the wheels of the industrial revolution, not to mention the gaskets on US spaceships. Our human history — our human culture — has been shaped by the body of whales.

Whaling is a community event in Barrow. Even Inupiat children too small to help process bowhead catches are still brought to see the whale. (Photo credit: AP Photo|GregoryBull)

Whaling is a community event in Barrow. Even Inupiat children too small to help process bowhead catches are still brought to see the whale. (Photo credit: AP Photo|GregoryBull)

The cost was enormous.

Industrial whaling was responsible for the largest removal of biomass from the world’s oceans…ever. Great whale species were hunted to the brink of extinction or – in the case of the Atlantic grey whale – past the brink of extinction to fuel the market for oil and other whale products.

While arguably the loss of life at this scale for any species would be considered a tragedy, there was a concomitant loss of something that makes the epoch of industrial whaling somehow more poignant: cetacean culture.

Whales and dolphins have culture. While this phrase makes some cultural anthropologists cringe, and has certainly sparked its fair share of debate, this phrase is generally accepted among behavioral ecologists and marine mammal biologists. But what does it mean? Technically and in terms of conservation?

Culture can be defined as shared behavior propagated through social learning. In humans, an example of this can be culturally specific foods. For example my grandmother taught my mother how to make seafood gumbo. My mother in turn taught me how to make gumbo. The act of making gumbo is a shared behavior that was learned; making gumbo it is part of our culture.

Humpback whales don’t cook, they do eat. In the same way that methods of cooking vary between human populations, methods of hunting vary between humpback whale populations. In Southeast Alaska, humpback whales use feeding calls in combination with bubble blowing to herd herring toward the surface of the ocean and then *gulp*. No other population of humpbacks in the world, that we know of, pair this call with this behaviour. Evidence suggests it may be a learned behaviour; culture.

Humpback whales bubble net feeding in Southeast Alaska. Culture in action.

Humpback whales bubble net feeding in Southeast Alaska. Culture in action (Photo credit ©Michelle Fournet).

Similarly, in the North Atlantic, humpback whales slap their flukes to herd fish in a behaviour known as lobtail feeding. Based on years of observations, and the hard work of a bright young grad student, we learned that this foraging technique was spread culturally throughout the population. Which means to say that individuals learned it from each other. Significantly, humpback whales also learn where to forage. They gain information from their mothers during their first year of life that tells them where to migrate to, good spots on foraging grounds to find and catch a meal, and what is good to eat. This is where conservation comes in.

During the height of industrial whaling large portions of whale populations were extirpated. When those whales were removed from the system, their traditions died with them. For some baleen whales that loss of cultural knowledge has led to the abandonment of fertile foraging grounds, and in other populations it has led to high fidelity to poor foraging grounds, without the knowledge of any alternatives.

So understanding culture in whales matters. It matters because it helps us to understand their adaption to population recoveries, it allows us to track their plasticity and resilience, to understand how and why one whale population differs from another, and maybe it allows us another way to relate to these animals. More personally, perhaps by understanding the importance of culture in whales we can begin to value the importance of culture in our own world, in our own country, in our own lives. Something, I would argue, that we might need right now.

About the Author: Michelle Fournet is a PhD student in Wildlife Science at Oregon State University (OSU) where she works as a graduate researcher with the Oregon State University Research Collective for Applied Acoustics (ORCAA). Michelle is also affiliated with the OSU/NOAA Cooperative Institute for Marine Resource Studies (CIMRS) and works as a research contributor with the Alaska Whale Foundation (AWF).  Michelle’s blog can be found HERE.

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