Rendell, L and Whitehead, H (2001) Culture in whales and dolphins. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 24(2) : 309-382


Studies of animal culture have not normally included a consideration of cetaceans. However, with several long-term field studies now maturing, this situation should change. Animal culture is generally studied by either investigating transmission mechanisms experimentally, or observing patterns of behavioural variation in wild populations which cannot be explained by either genetic or environmental factors. Taking this second, ethnographic, approach, there is good evidence for cultural transmission in several cetacean species. However, only the bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops spp.) has been shown experimentally to possess sophisticated social learning abilities, including vocal and motor imitation; other species have not been studied. There is observational evidence for imitation and teaching in killer whales. For cetaceans, and other large wide-ranging animals, excessive reliance on experimental data for evidence of culture is not productive, we favour the ethnographic approach. The complex and stable vocal and behavioural cultures of sympatric groups of killer whales (Orcinus orca) appear to have no parallel outside humans and represent an independent evolution of cultural faculties. The wide movements of cetaceans, the greater variability of the marine environment over large temporal scales relative to that on land, and the stable matrilineal social groups of some species are potentially important factors in the evolution of cetacean culture. There have been suggestions of gene-culture coevolution in cetaceans, and culture may be implicated in some unusual behavioural and life-history traits of the whales and dolphins. We hope to stimulate both discussion and research on culture in these animals.

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