Humpback Whales Learn New Tricks

Humpback WhalesWhether it’s learning a new song, figuring out how to use tools to forage for food, or picking up the local customs, learning from others is an important part of life for many animals, including people.

The idea of a culture or traditions—behavior shared by an identifiable group and acquired through social learning—in cetaceans, a group including whales and dolphins, has been controversial.

But a new study finds strong evidence that a group of humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) in the Gulf of Maine is sharing a newly observed feeding behavior via their social networks.

That behavior, called lobtail feeding, was first recorded in one whale in the Gulf of Maine in 1980. Since then, 278 humpback whales—out of about 700 observed individuals that frequent the Stellwagen Bank (map) area—have employed the strategy, according to the study, published this week in the journal Science.

“I’ve been arguing for over a decade now that cultural transmission is important in cetacean societies,” said study co-author Luke Rendell, a marine biologist at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

Though he wasn’t surprised the whales traded information, he was surprised at how strongly his data said the whales learned the new feeding strategy socially, rather than because of other factors like having a genetic predisposition to the behavior.

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