Like humans and ancestral apes, cetaceans develop behavioural traits through social cognition and transmission in their lifetime. Cetaceans are a few of the species in the animal kingdom that are capable of shaping traditions and passing them on to other members of their units.
In separate studies spanning years of whale watching and long-term field research, a group of researchers, using the ethnographic approach, have found that the whale culture has some effect on the genetic variation and evolution of the species. This ground-breaking piece of knowledge helps explain why some animals, especially those that thrive in units, develop distinct behavioural patterns and sophisticated social learning abilities while others may not.
Culture and genetics
Like humans, whales and dolphins form complex social faculties. They thrive, move and survive as a unit. Units in the wild present cultural variations in terms of vocal and motor traits, and exhibit varying degrees of cognitive abilities.
Bottlenose dolphins, for example, have highly sophisticated social behaviour and cognitive traits. Data suggest that they are capable of using objects, actions and concepts to guide their behaviour. Culture in whales is far more complex than that of other animals, where cultural learning mostly relies on environmental factors and predisposition.
Criticism of the theory
The argument that culture affects the behavioural repertoire of whales and dolphins is widely criticised in the field of animal behavioural studies. Critics argue that distinct genetic lineages have nothing to do with culture, that only genetics and ecological factors could explain the behaviour of these large-brained mammals.
However, it is undeniable that culture has a profound effect on whale populations. Like humans, environmental cues and genetics are not the only variables that shape the way we socialise, think, feel and behave. Distinct cultural trends and niches help form our identity.
In the case of whales and dolphins, some units innovate cultural techniques based on know-how transfer, hence culture. While this hypothesis is still currently laced with controversies, there is significant evidence showing that distinct behaviours stem from cultural transmissions.