Whale societies03 Jul 2009
Wired’s science blog has a piece on cetacean culture and communciation: “Whales might be as much like people as apes are”. Dalhousie University researcher Hal Whitehead and his students are the center of the story:
My strong suspicion is that a lot of sperm whale life revolves around social issues, said Whitehead. Theyre nomadic, live in permanent groups, and are dependent on each other for everything. Social structure is vital to them. The only constant thing in their world is their social group. Id guess that a lot of their life is paying attention to social relationships.
These relationships would be interestingly different from ours, for a variety of reasons, continued Whitehead. Theres nowhere to hide, they can use sound to form an image of each others insides whether youre pregnant, hungry, sick. In a three-dimensional habitat, its probably much harder to say something is mine, or yours, whether its a piece of food or a potential mate.
On the topic of cognitive prerequisites for tool use, the cetaceans seem another very interesting case. Opportunities for material culture are extremely limited (pretty much, sponge-manipulation by dolphins). Yet, other cetaceans have complex foraging behaviors (bubble-netting, for example) that rival the complex plant preparation we see in gorillas, who otherwise use tools rarely.