Beluga whales may have their own culture, study shows

A study published recently in the scientific Journal PLOS One shows it’s likely beluga whales have their own culture, including the ability to pass on knowledge about their migration behaviour to one another.

Researchers find genetically related whales return to same locations, generation after generation

Researchers looked at a sample and genetic marker set of 1,647 whales spanning more than two decades, according to the study. (Submitted by Vicki Beaver)

A study published recently in the scientific Journal PLOS One shows it's likely beluga whales have their own culture, including the ability to pass on knowledge about their migration behaviour to one another.

Researchers looked at a sample and genetic marker set of 1,647 whales spanning more than two decades, according to the study.

Greg O'Corry-Crowe, an author of the study and research professor at Florida Atlantic University's Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute, said the researchers were looking for genetic differences between beluga whales that returned to seasonal stops along their annual migration routes in the Alaskan, Canadian and Russian Arctic.

The goal was to find out whether belugas have their own culture — something that's characterized by a group's ability to form a social structure and learn from each other, and is an emerging field of study when it comes to non-primates.

What researchers found was that many genetically related beluga whales swim together each year or reconvene at certain locations, according to O'Corry-Crowe.

Evidence of culturally inherited knowledge

They also stick together over time — even decades and generations.

"The only way that can really emerge is if there is this sort of connection to site throughout your life that you're passing onto the next generation in some way," said O'Corry-Crowe.

"We have compelling evidence, in our view, for the evolution of culturally inherited migration knowledge and behaviour."

The findings mean people now have a better understanding of the whales' population structure, where they go and when.

It's also important for the effective co-management of beluga whales with those in nearby communities, who O'Corry-Crowe said really drove the direction of the research.

The research could help with the management of the species. It also raises questions about whether culture could help beluga whales adapt to a changing Arctic environment. (Submitted by Lisa Barry)

Many in these communities are concerned about whether whale populations are healthy, what potential dangers they face and what stressors they are being exposed to.

All this genetic work is "geared towards better resource management and better policies going forward," that could help mitigate risks to the whales and, by extension, communities, he said.

Belugas' ability to learn from one another could also help them adjust to changes in their environment, raising the question of whether it could help them adapt to climate change, said O'Corry-Crowe.

"They have that ability to adjust their behaviour," he said. "It's just going to be intriguing to see what role culture is going to play in adapting quickly to a very different Arctic."

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