Science and Tech

Cultural transmission in whales unprecedented beyond humans

Humpback Whale



A study led by the University of Queensland found that humpback whales can learn incredibly complex songs of whales from other regions.

Dr Jenny Allen, whose PhD work at the University of Queensland’s School of Veterinary Science led to the study, said the researchers found humpback whales off New Caledonia could learn songs from their counterparts off Australia’s east coast with a remarkable precision.

“This really indicates a level of ‘cultural transmission’ beyond any observed non-human species,” Allen said.

The study took a close look at the song patterns of male humpback whales from each region between 2009 and 2015, to examine how culture is transmitted between populations.

Allen said it’s a statement that the complexity of the songs was determined by measuring both the number of sounds the whales made as the duration of the sound patterns.

“By listening to the Australian humpback population, we were able to see if the songs changed in any way when sung by New Caledonian whales,” Allen said.

“We found that they actually learned the exact sounds, without simplifying or omitting anything. And every year we looked at them, they sang a different song, which means that humpback whales can very quickly learn an entire song pattern from another population, even if it’s complex or difficult.

The findings support the idea that whales are learning songs on shared migratory routes like New Zealand or shared feeding grounds like Antarctica.

“It is rare for this degree of cultural exchange to be documented on such a large scale in a non-human species. We hope that these findings will provide a model for further study on understanding the evolution of cultural communication in animals and humansAllen explained.

While humpback whales have recently been removed from the endangered species list, Allen said their populations still need to be carefully managed, and these findings could help.

“Having in-depth knowledge of a species is known to greatly improve the effectiveness of conservation and management methods,” said. “We now have a more holistic picture of the behaviors, movements and interactions of different populations of humpback whales, including how they transmit culture. It means we are better equipped to protect them against the many threats they face as our climate and our planet continue to change.

The research has been published in ScientificReports.

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