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Sperm whale study reveals new insight into social networks

The latest research from scientists studying the sounds made by sperm whales, has revealed fascinating new details into the social networks these whales live in.

Professor Hal Whitehead, Mauricio Cantor and colleagues from Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, studying the clicks made by sperm whales in the eastern Pacific near the Galapagos Islands over an 18 year period, discovered that different ‘clans’ of whales, which can number thousands of whales, have their own individual sequences of noises. What’s more, these vocalisations, which sound a bit like morse code, are not known already to the whales, they have to be learnt over time.

Head of a sperm whale

Two of the clans frequently observed used distinct sequences of clicks, known as ‘codas’. The clans never mix and live their lives quite differently when it comes to travelling around etc.

The challenge for the team was to work out how the different clans evolved. Using a computer model, they investigated whether the sounds were passed on genetically from mothers to calves or whether they had to be learnt. The results suggest that it could only be by learning, supported by the complexity of the sounds made.

The findings highlight how important social bonding is in sperm whale society and provides a further insight into the lives of these amazing creatures, whose numbers were decimated by whaling between 18th and the 20th centuries.

You can hear more about this fascinating research on the BBC:
For UK listeners – BBC Radio 4’s Inside Science programme with Tracey Logan at 4.30pm on Sept 10th.
Outsite the UK -BBC World Service’s Science In Action programme with Jack Stewart at 18.30 GMT on Sept 10th.

Read the Scientific paper – Multilevel animal societies can emerge from cultural transmission Maurício Cantor, Lauren G. Shoemaker, Reniel B. Cabral, César O. Flores, Melinda Varga, Hal Whitehead. Nature Communication. Sept 8th 2015.

About George Berry

George is a member of WDC's Communications team and website coordinator.