New discoveries from a 32-year study of beluga whales show the extent to which these animals value culture and family ties.
What scientists call culture is not primarily about how to behave in polite society (although belugas certainly teach their children that, too); it’s about what you learn from your family and how you pass this knowledge down from generation to generation. We humans do this in spades, but we are by no means unique, and we’re learning more and more about the many other kinds of animals who have deeply rooted cultures based on social learning.
The new study focused on the migratory patterns of beluga whales in the Gulf of Alaska, the Bering, Chukchi and Beaufort Seas, and the Sea of Okhotsk from 1978 to 2010. The findings demonstrated that whales who were related to each other returned to the same locations year after year, and even generation after generation.
Beluga whales are denizens of Arctic and sub-Arctic waters, often traveling more than 3,500 miles each year and spending their winters and summers in different locations as they raise their young. During the summer, these highly sociable animals often have giant meet-ups, hanging out in the thousands close to the shore (as in the image above, taken in the Hudson Bay).
Highly sophisticated cognitive abilities
Their highly sophisticated vocal repertoires and acoustic systems, including echolocation, suggest that they can form very complex relationships and groups. But they’ve always been difficult to study in the wild. So, in 1978, scientists began a sophisticated analysis, including genetic samples, from year to year to track a total of 1,647 belugas.
“What intrigued us most was whether particular whales returned to where they were born or grew up, and if this was an inherited behavior,” writes Greg O’Corry-Crowe, Ph.D., lead author and a research professor at Florida Atlantic University’s Harbor Branch. “The only way that we could definitively answer these questions was to find and track close relatives from one year to the next and one decade to the next.”
O’Corry-Crowe and his team have concluded that from one generation to the next, the whales have been passing along the knowledge of their travels and their routes.
Video from National Geographic
Of course, many other species migrate over thousands of miles, back and forth, every year. So, what’s different about belugas?
“Many other animals do indeed migrate on an annual basis,” explains Lori Marino, President of the Whale Sanctuary Project. “Most of them do this by using environmental cues (day/night, chemicals, magnetism, etc.). But what makes the beluga migrations especially interesting is that they’re based on social learning from mothers to children. And that’s the basis of culture. Belugas aren’t just a migratory species; they’re a migratory culture.”
Learning their culture
The new study also sheds light on how come young belugas are sometimes observed alone and have been known to befriend humans. Such was the well-known case of a beluga known as Wilma, an orphan who befriended fishermen and tourists in Chedabucto Bay, Nova Scotia. Catherine Kinsman, President of the Whale Stewardship Project, was authorized by the government to watch over Wilma.
“They possess extraordinary echolocation abilities with great range.”
“People are always asking, ‘How did this little whale get here, and why doesn’t she just go home?’,” she says. “The most reasonable explanation is that these young belugas, often only about two years of age or so, become separated from their family, get lost, and don’t know where they are in relation to home and don’t know how to get back.”
Just like us humans, young belugas need to spend many years learning their culture. Very young whales may not yet know all the routes any more than a two-year-old human could walk herself from home to the store and back.
It might seem even more remarkable that any beluga could learn to navigate thousands of miles each year to and from their feeding, breeding and meet-up locations. But Kinsman (who was not involved in the study) says that that what appears to us humans as a largely homogeneous ocean environment may not be that at all to a beluga.
“They possess extraordinary echolocation abilities with great range and ability to detect and differentiate shape, size, texture,” she reminds us. “To a beluga, even the sands on the ocean floor in one place may “look” (or rather sound) different from the sandy bottom in another.”
Video from National Geographic
The new study has made a big difference to how scientists study them and how we can protect them in the wild. Does it also have any application to belugas in aquariums and marine entertainment parks?
“In the wild,” Kinsman says, “beluga culture enables individual baby whales to learn, grow and thrive as part of a very complex community.” But life in such a totally unnatural environment actually shuts down their ability to learn. “Barren concrete tanks force them to curtail or even mute their otherwise extraordinarily chatty voices. Instead, they learn to produce an appallingly degraded substitute for their vast range of normal beluga expressions.”
What, then, can these big-brained, intelligent, cultural beings learn when they’re growing up in concrete tanks? Basically, just whatever another captive beluga can show them, or what they can figure out for themselves, if they are to survive within these completely unnatural conditions.
The bottom line, when it comes to whales who have been co-opted into the entertainment industry, is always the same: The more we learn about them, the more we learn that they belong with their families in the wild, not in small pools doing circus tricks in exchange for sustenance.