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Re­searchers have found that sperm whales are cul­tur­ally no­madic, with dis­tinc­tive clans mov­ing vast dis­tances in re­sponse to changes in habi­tat. This cul­tural con­stancy has so far been seen to be un­usual in the ma­rine en­vi­ron­ment, with most an­i­mals pre­fer­ring to re­main in their habi­tats through pe­ri­ods of en­vi­ron­men­tal fluc­tu­a­tion, and adapt­ing their cul­tures ac­cord­ingly.

Th­ese find­ings come from a study in the Galá­pa­gos, where the wa­ters were dom­i­nated by two spe­cific clans of sperm whales un­til they left in the 1990s, but now host two en­tirely dif­fer­ent pop­u­la­tions that have moved in from across the Pa­cific basin, thou­sands of kilo­me­tres away. The dis­tinct pop­u­la­tions can be de­ter­mined by their “co­das”, or vo­cal di­alects, that are spe­cific to cer­tain clans.

Co-au­thor of the study Dr Shane Gero, a post­doc­toral ma­rine bi­ol­o­gist at Aarhus Univer­sity in Den­mark, told Mongabay that this kind of cul­tural turnover is un­heard of out­side of hu­mans. “It’s as if you had been go­ing to Canada for 20 years and ev­ery­body spoke English and French, but then in the next 10 years no­body lived in Canada,” said Gero. “Then, you went back and every­one spoke Span­ish and Por­tuguese.”

“Sperm whale cul­tures ap­pear to en­dure dra­matic en­vi­ron­men­tal changes,” said Mauri­cio Can­tor, a post­doc­toral fel­low at the Fed­eral Univer­sity of Santa Cata­rina, Brazil, and lead au­thor of the study. “Th­ese cul­tural bound­aries are not triv­ial or aban­doned in the face of new chal­lenges.”

The re­search im­plies that pro­tect­ing sperm whales may re­quire tracking their pop­u­la­tions cul­tur­ally, rather than ge­o­graph­i­cally.

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