Hidden Whale Culture Could Be Critical to Species Survival

Though it sounds at first like a marine biologist’s take on political correctness, respecting the cultural diversity of whales may be essential to saving them.

Scientists are accustomed to thinking of whale populations in terms of genetic diversity. But even when they share the same genes, groups of whales can live in very different ways, raising the possibility that species might be saved even while individual cultures vanish. The tragedy of cultural extinction aside, cultural diversity may sustain the long-term health of Earth’s cetaceans.

"We have no idea what’s going on. As we mess up the world, it goes off in all kinds of weird directions," said biologist Hal Whitehead of Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia. "The more diversity that’s out there, both genetic and cultural, the more whales can deal with it."


That whales could even have culture is a relatively new scientific proposition. It was not unil the late 1960s that recordings of humpback whale songs provided a glimpse of the unexpectedly complicated and beautiful world of cetacean communication. The songs don’t appear — for now — to reach the level of language, but they’re clearly a form of learned communicative behavior common across the cetacean realm. And as researchers spend more time with whales, they’re realizing just how much their learned behaviors differ.

Article continues