Beluga Whales Value Culture and Ancestral Roots, Much Like Humans

Scientific research is increasingly revealing that whales form highly complex societies that are comparable, in many ways, to our own.

Now, a new study of beluga whales conducted by an international team of researchers has demonstrated that the animals value culture, ancestral roots and family ties just as much as humans do.

The scientists found that related beluga whales—which are native to the Arctic and sub-Arctic waters—returned to the same summer and winter locations every year for the purposes of feeding, breeding, molting and raising their young, traveling thousands of miles in the process. This behavior was passed down from generation to generation, likely from mother to calf, the researchers say.

The new findings have been published in the journal PLOS One.

We know that beluga whales are highly sophisticated animals due to their complex vocalizations and group interactions. But whether or not they are capable of developing culture has been a long-running debate among scientists.

"In the context of this research, culture is knowledge or behavior shared within a group or society of animals (humans), which is acquired through some sort of social learning," Greg O'Corry-Crowe, lead author of the study and research professor at Florida Atlantic University told Newsweek.

Beluga whales' incredibly sophisticated series of vocal repertoires and acoustic systems suggest that they are capable of forming very complex relationships and groups. Lisa Barry, NOAA/NMFS/AFSC/MML

The prerequisites for culture were: "Some form of stable grouping patterns or society, the ability to learn and remember knowledge/behaviors from others in the group, and some adaptive value to both the transmitting of and the receiving of the knowledge/behavior," O'Corry-Crowe said. "The latter can come in the form of increased survival and reproductive success of each individual. If the individuals are related (say a mother teaches its offspring) there can conceivably be additional benefits in terms of kin selection."

For their study, the scientists were particularly interested in finding out whether particular whales instinctively returned to where they were born or grew up or if this behavior was inherited. They decided to track close relatives over several years.

To do this, the team analyzed genetic samples from more than 1,600 beluga whales. These samples were taken over three decades (1978 to 2010) from whales living in the Gulf of Alaska, the Bering-Chukchi-Beaufort Seas and the Sea of Okhotsk.

The findings demonstrate some level of inherited behavior—a key component of culture—according to the researchers.

"We've been able to piece together a number of key aspects of beluga whale migration that established that closely related individuals were making the long trek back to the same discrete coastal areas year after year and generation after generation," O'Corry-Crowe said.

"This indicates that these long-lived whales likely form life-long associations with close kin that may be driven in large part by a critical need to navigate the challenges of ice-covered waters (often in complete darkness) in order to get to certain key areas at certain times each year," he added.

"These findings combined with the fact that beluga calves remain with their mothers for more than one year, and thus more than one migratory circuit, strengthens the case for culturally inherited migration knowledge and behavior."