Pictures of the week: Culture and Cognition in Cetaceans

At the Centre d'éducation et de recherche de Sept-Iles in Quebec, we study social interactions among cetaceans. Culture and cognition studies on cetaceans are quite recent compared with the extensive research conducted on other species. There are three reasons for this: 1) most research on cetacean behaviour adopts an "ecology validity" approach; 2) only captive cetaceans (mostly members of the Delphinidae family) can be part of controlled laboratory experiments; and 3) cetaceans spend most of their time underwater. whales_1


Photo 1. A pair of blue whales (Balaenoptera musculus) during mating season. The pairings show specific attributes related to the position of each animal during navigation; the female, who leads, will dictate the speed and the navigational direction of the pair. If the male speeds up a little, the female will slowdown bringing the male to reposition himself at a specific distance (unpublished data). During the surface navigation, an almost perfect coordination between the female and the male brings the pair to dive at exactly the same time. We are interested in the nature of the stimuli that makes this coordination possible.




Still, in recent years, long-term studies of cetaceans in the wild have brought to light some interesting behavioural patterns that are better explained as cultural phenomenon transmitted through stimulus enhacement. Some recent studies have investigated the social function of vocal communication in sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus). Others have focused on the learning of feeding techniques in the bottlenose dolphins (Tursiosps truncates).

Our own research focuses, in part, on the cognitive development of finback whales (Balaenoptera physalus) and harbour porpoises (Phocoena phocoena).

In the picture below (photo 2), we can see a pair of cow/calf finback whales; we were able to collect data on their social interactions for a period of 8 weeks. These interactions showed patterns of spatial and navigational preferences (unpublished data).



Photo 2. The calf will spend most of its surfacing time navigating on the right side of the cow's head. (unpublished data). It is interesting to note that the finback whale (Balaenoptera physalus) has an asymmetrical coloration: the left side of the body is dark brown and the right side is white with what we call a "chevron", an individual pigmentation like fingerprint, that extends from the eye to the blowholes. We are interested in understanding the cognitive function and impact (visual stimulus) of this specific pigmentation in the cow/calf interactions.

Will we ever be able to fully investigate culture and the different aspects of cetacean cognition (for instance, kinship visual recognition)? What is clear is that the problems involved may be overcome only by engaging in a creative interdisciplinary approach.

1 Comment

  • Dan Sperber
    Dan Sperber 18 March 2009 (14:29)

    Fascinating, but it would be useful to distinguish cases of social coordination from cases of actual cultural transmission. If for instance, two individuals coordinate by means of signals that are not, or not completely, part of a genetically transmitted repertoire, this is a case of cognitive creativity in the domain of the social. If these signal are then transmitted to, and used by new individuals, this is incipient cultural transmission. If different groups of animals actually use different signals over time (better, over several generations)in a way that is explained neither by genetics nor by ecology, this then is a paradigmatic case of culture. (I have no objection seeing these cases as on a continuum, without any dividing line between the creatively social and the paradigmatically cultural) So, to what extent do the exemples in this post (and other cetaceans cases) involve pardigmatic cultural transmission?