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Media opportunity: Dalhousie scientists suggest sperm whales successfully taught their social groups to act more defensively, change behaviour to protect themselves against whaling efforts

Posted by Communications and Marketing on March 17, 2021 in News

Is it possible that sperm whales -- the species made famous in Moby Dick -- taught each other to alter their behaviour and act more defensively to protect themselves from whalers prowling the seas in the 18th and 19thcenturies?

It is a question that scientists at Dalhousie University addressed in a new paper that suggests sperm whales in the North Pacific in the 1820s rapidly changed their habits to evade open-boat whalers, who typically spent hours trying to harpoon the animals.

The paper, published March 17, 2021, in the journal Biology Letters, suggests the large mammals learned and adopted defensive measures from their close social units, a phenomenon that shows animal cultures can evolve rapidly over large scales.

Dr. Hal Whitehead, a professor in Dalhousie’s Biology Department, co-authored the paper that found sperm whales could likely sense and co-ordinate behaviour over ranges of several kilometres through their echolocation and communication systems.

The authors analyzed digitized logbooks from American whalers in the North Pacific and found that the rate at which whalers succeeded in harpooning whales fell by about 58 per cent over the first few years of exploitation in the region.

They determined that such a decline could not be explained by the earliest whalers being more competent, as their strike rates outside the North Pacific were not elevated. Instead, it appears whales swiftly learned effective defensive behaviour, such as fleeing, attacking whalers or refraining from gathering on the water’s surface.

Dr. Whitehead is available to discuss how the whales’ ability to change behaviour has implications for the population in the face of a new anthropogenic threats.


Media contact:
Alison Auld
Senior Research Reporter
Dalhousie University
Cell: 1-902-220-0491


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