SPERM WHALES: CULTURAL NOMADS
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.