BBC Science Focus

Whale hello!


Beluga whales have surprising­ly complex social structures

As well as spending time with their close relatives, beluga whales also frequently associate with individual­s they have no relation to, a study at Florida Atlantic University’s Harbor Branch Oceanograp­hic Institute has found. Belugas make friends with others outside of their family groups, and beluga communitie­s have similariti­es to human societies where social networks, support structures, cooperatio­n and cultures involve interactio­ns between kin and non-kin.

The study brought together decades of research using molecular genetic techniques and field studies spanning locations across the Arctic from Alaska to Canada and Russia to Norway. The team found that belugas form several different group types, each with associated behaviours that were consistent­ly observed across different population­s and habitats.

“Unlike killer and pilot whales, and like some human societies, beluga whales don’t solely or even primarily interact and associate with close kin,” said lead author Dr Greg O’Corry-Crowe. “Beluga whales exhibit a wide range of grouping patterns, from small groups of two to individual­s to herds of or more from apparently single-sex and age-class pods to mixedage and sex groupings, and from brief associatio­ns to multi year affiliatio­ns". he added. "This variation suggests a fission fusion society where group compositio­n and size are context specific but it may also reflect a more rigid multilevel society of stable social units that regularly coalesce and separate. The role kinship plays in these groupings has been largely unknown.”

These results differ from earlier prediction­s that belugas have a matrilinea­l social system of closely bonded groups of female relatives. They also differ from the behaviour of the larger toothed whales. Killer whales, for example, form groups of both males and females with close maternal kin and they remain in them for their entire lives.

“This new understand­ing of why individual­s form social groups, even with non-relatives, may promote new research on what constitute­s species resilience and how species like the beluga whale can respond to emerging threats, including climate change,” said O’Corry-Crowe.

 ??  ?? Complex social groupings have been observed in beluga whales across the Arctic in a groundbrea­king new study
Complex social groupings have been observed in beluga whales across the Arctic in a groundbrea­king new study

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