When it comes to humans, we often tend to form a social groups based on common interests, backgrounds, or languages. It turns out, however, that we might not be the only species to do that, as sperm whales, deep in the ocean, also like to spend time with those they have the most in common with.
Most powerful sonar and the largest brains in nature, sperm whales are still a mystery scientists. Their click-based language is what tipped researchers on how they communicate: different sounds are heard in different groups of sperm whales.
Researchers at Dalhousie University in Halifax published in the journal Nature a paper on how the whales’ clicks represent different dialects, which help them establish social hierarchies. It’s a long-standing confirmed theory that female sperm whales tend to create clans based on family relations.
Senior author Mauricio Cantor, a PhD candidate in the biology department at Dalhousie University, paints a pretty picture: a mom with her baby and the grandmas joined by other related whales chit-chatting while hanging out together.
Other females are encouraged to become part of the clan, but researchers noticed that whales that already use similar types of sounds for communication are more likely to stick around. Cantor and his team called this a “vocal clan.”
But one puzzle gave researchers a tough time: was the structure of whale society that prompted the development of dialects, or were the already-established dialects the ones to make whales group in distinct clans? They had a chicken-and-egg problem on their hands.
Cantor believes it’s not either one or another, but a combination of both that resulted in a circular relationship. This process is called biased social learning, when there’s both a tendency to join a group that already communicates like them, and a way of learning a new way of communicating that will help them fit in that group.
Cantor compared their inclination to learn the most used sounds to the way humans conform to a new fashion or a trend. But the next big question was whether animals can have their own culture, which is a rather debated topic among social scientists and biologists alike.
While some think we should reserve the term strictly for humans, others strongly believe that the animal kingdom is capable of culture as well. For Cantor, this is all a matter of how we define culture.
On land, he explains, animals have an easier time controlling food access by controlling territory. In the ocean, however, things start to change and it becomes more difficult.
Information and communication is more valuable – vital even – among marine animals, which fascinates scientists. The use of similar sounds that eases social interaction is still a subject that researchers are avidly studying.
Image Source: Telegraph.co.uk