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The Cultural Evolution Society's Online Learning Series

Animal Cultures: Core Discoveries and New Horizons

Lecture 5: Major study groups – Whales and dolphins

Luke Rendell, University of St Andrews, UK

Cetaceans are mammals with a long evolutionary history quite separate from our own primate lineages. In this lecture I will present evidence gathered over decades but being presented at an increasing pace as long-term studies of wild cetacean populations begin to deliver insights obtainable in no other way. I will talk about variation and change in the behavior of the four best studies species – bottlenose dolphins, killer whales, sperm whales and humpback whales.

I will also discuss the compelling evidence for social learning capabilities in those species amenable to captivity. Learning from others is apparent in the way individuals in these species develop their foraging tactics and their vocal repertoires, to such a degree that I will argue this cultural inheritance is vital, in the sense that members of these species cannot fully develop into surviving and reproducing adults without it.

Luke Rendell

Lecture slides (pdf)

Core (testable) readings

Cantor, M., & Whitehead, H. (2013). The interplay between social networks and culture: theoretically and among whales and dolphins. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B 368.

How social structure and culture interact in whales and dolphins, and more generally.

Sargeant, B.L., & Mann, J. (2009). From social learning to culture: intrapopulation variation in bottlenose dolphins. In The Question of Animal Culture, (pp. 152– 73). Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.

Diverse cultures of the particularly well-studied Shark Bay bottlenose dolphins.

Further reading

Whitehead, H. & Rendell, L. (2015). The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

The most recent and comprehensive review of the topic.

McDonald, M.A., Hildebrand, J.A., & Mesnick, S. (2009). Worldwide decline in tonal frequencies of blue whale songs. Endangered Species Research 9,13– 21.

Perhaps of the most extraordinary discovery in the study of animal cultures.

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