2009年9月5日土曜日

All posts tagged ‘whales’ by wired science

Whales Might Be as Much Like People as Apes Are
By Brandon Keim June 25, 2009 | 2:13 pm | Categories: Animals, Ethics


As the annual International Whaling Commission meeting stumbles to a close, unable to negotiate a compromise between whaling opponents and people who’ve killed more than 40,000 whales since 1985, scientists say these aquatic mammals are more than mere animals. They might even deserve to be considered people.

Not human people, but as occupying a similar range on the spectrum as the great apes, for whom the idea of personhood has moved from preposterous to possible. Chimpanzees, gorillas and bonobos possess self-awareness, feelings and high-level cognitive powers. According to a steadily gathering body of research, so do whales and dolphins.

In fact, their capacities could be even more ancient than our own, dating to an evolutionary explosion in brain size that took place millions of years before the last common ancestor of the great apes existed.

“If an alien came down anytime prior to about 1.5 million years ago to communicate with the ‘brainiest’ animals on Earth, they would have tripped over our own ancestors and headed straight for the oceans to converse with the dolphins,” said Lori Marino, an evolutionary neurobiologist at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center.

The idea of whale personhood makes all the more haunting the prospect that Earth’s cetaceans, many of whom were hunted to the brink of extinction in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, are still threatened.

At the annual International Whaling Commission being held this week in Portugal, officials failed to curb the continuing killing of some 1,000 whales every year, mostly by hunters from Japan, Norway and Iceland. Many scientists say populations are still too fragile to support commercial hunting or, in the case of Japan, “scientific research” that appears to kill an especially high number of pregnant females.

Mortality from hunting, however, may be the least of the whale’s worries. Industrial pollution has suffused their bodies with heavy metals and toxins. Noise pollution drowns out the vocalizations on which whales rely to find food and navigate. Overfishing punches holes in oceanic webs of life. Whales and dolphins are also accidentally caught in nets and struck by ships.

Such collisions appear to be pushing the North Atlantic right whale to oblivion, and the IWC says that ship strikes “should be reduced to zero as soon as possible.” But though the U.S. has set speed limits off its northeast coast, the World Shipping Council has fought such measures internationally. It’s also possible that Navy sonar tests, which may have caused mass beachings in the Bahamas, are to blame. The U.S. Supreme Court has struck down restrictions on the tests. And though President Obama has noble intentions on ocean policy, pollution and overfishing is a global problem.



Whales Might Be as Much Like People as Apes Are
By Brandon Keim June 25, 2009 2:13 pm Categories: Animals, Ethics

In the midst of this, research has continued on whales and dolphins, which have long been difficult to study. Whales can’t be kept in captivity. Scientists require expensive ships and tools that, despite their sophistication, produce relatively low-resolution readings of whale life.

Most findings come from bottlenose dolphins, killer whales, sperm whales and humpback whales — the species that scientists have painstakingly studied for a few decades, and now continue their work with improved gene sequencing and song analysis tools. In these four species, scientists see considerable social complexity and individual distinction. They talk of whales and dolphins in terms of cultures and societies, and say cetaceans possess qualities of personhood. They say the same is likely true of other species, who simply haven’t been studied yet.

“It’s only due to our lack of knowledge that humans remain this exclusive species,” said Shane Gero, a Dalhousie University marine biologist. “We’re getting a lot of long-term studies in cetaceans, hitting multiple generations, and we’re finally able to get at these questions.” Though there’s still more evidence for primate than cetacean personhood, Gero said accumulating research “will start tipping the scales.”

Gero trained under Dalhousie University biologist Hal Whitehead, who started studying whales in 1977. Researchers from his lab and that of St. Andrews University biologist Luke Rendell, another former Whitehead student, have studied sperm whales around the world. They’re responsible for much of what’s known about the whales’ social behavior, which involves wide variations in group formation, hunting and child-rearing. Groups even appear to communicate in their own unique dialect.

“Based on what we know, I’d guess that cetacean culture is intermediate between humans and chimpanzees. Not in material culture, but in most other respects,” said Whitehead.

Culture is an especially important measure of personhood in whales, since it’s difficult to administer the sorts of tests that have found chimpanzees to be capable of basic math, altruism, laughter and complex communication, the latter of which can be neurologically imaged in real-time.


But if cetaceans can’t take these tests, they have met one critical laboratory benchmark of higher cognition: self-recognition. With Wildlife Conservation Society cognitive scientist Diana Reiss, Lori Marino showed that bottlenose dolphins can use mirrors to investigate marks hidden on their bodies. “When they look in the mirror, they’re saying, ‘That’s me,’” said Marino. “They have a sense of self through time.”

And in a much-celebrated first documented example of tool use in marine mammals, a family of dolphins in Australia uses sponges to hunt.

Cetaceans even surpass most primates in their use of sound. “We’ve known for some time now that the communication systems of these animals is more complex than we can imagine,” said Marino. “People are starting to use some interesting statistical methods to look at their vocal repertoires, and they’re finding structural complexity that suggests there may be something like grammar, syntax, even language.”

Fueling the evolution of cetacean communication is an ability, observed in dolphins, humpback whales and sperm whales, to pass songs and codas between generations and individuals.

“One of the ways in which dolphins are unusual among mammals is their ability to imitate sounds. Most apes are barely able to modify the sounds that they make vocally, based on what they hear,” said Peter Tyack, a biologist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. “To be able to learn sounds and incorporate them is really important for human communication.”

According to Tyack, the individually distinctive calls of dolphins may even be equivalent to names. “That’s an open research question,” he said.

In addition to cultural evidence, researchers who’ve studied cetacean brains — many of which are among the largest in the animal kingdom — have found highly developed analogues to human structures. Whale brains appear to have undergone massive growth about 30 million years ago, a process linked in primates to the development of complex cognition and culture.

“The parts of the brain that are involved with processing emotion and social relationships are enormously complex, and in many cetaceans even more highly elaborated than in the human brain,” said Marino. “If we assume that the limbic system is doing what it’s doing in all mammals, then something very high-level is going on.”

As for the nature of a whale’s inner life, it’s difficult to say but possible to speculate.

“My strong suspicion is that a lot of sperm whale life revolves around social issues,” said Whitehead. “They’re 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. I’d 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. “There’s nowhere to hide, they can use sound to form an image of each other’s insides — whether you’re pregnant, hungry, sick. In a three-dimensional habitat, it’s probably much harder to say something is mine, or yours, whether it’s a piece of food or a potential mate.”

Tyler Schulz, another researcher in Whitehead’s lab, recently refined a method for linking sperm whale codas to the individual who composed them. That should help researchers get an even better appreciation of personal traits.

“He found that in one group, most of the animals had a similar repertoire of calls, but the mother of a baby had a different one,” said Whitehead. “As we analyze the data, we’ll be able to figure out whether that was the mother’s originally vocabulary, and she was a weirdo, or if maybe that was just baby talk. We all know women who change their vocabularies when they have babies.”

Images: 1. steews4/Flickr. 2. NOAA. 3. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 4. Northern Territory Government

See Also:

Chimps: Not Human, But Are They People?
A Different Take on Great Ape Personhood
Hidden Whale Culture Could Be Critical to Species Survival
What It Sounds Like to Be a Whale
Clever Critters: 8 Best Non-Human Tool Users
Brandon Keim’s Twitter stream and reportorial outtakes, including references and outtakes for this article; Wired Science on Twitter.






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Posted by: ablackstormy 06/25/09 3:16 pm
Save a whale, harpoon that fat blowhard Paul Watson instead.

Posted by: Gifftor 06/25/09 4:22 pm
Save a whale, harpoon a whaler.

Posted by: reHEARSal 06/25/09 4:33 pm
not that i condone it, but i’ve seen this bumper sticker before: ’save the whales, harpoon fat chicks instead.’ i never thought i would have the format to mention that.

Posted by: gerrrg 06/25/09 4:47 pm
Save a whale; stop the Navy’s killer sonar.

Posted by: vithrar 06/25/09 5:06 pm
ablackstormy:
Ha, I didn’t know who Paul Watson was, but now I agree.

Posted by: Delta5 06/25/09 5:15 pm
But the whales are his *clients*!

Interesting article. I’d like to see more info about wales actually performing sonograms on each other. That’s a new one to me.

Posted by: slaani 06/25/09 5:36 pm
I don’t understand all of the moralizing and trying to be extra-humane to creatures because they meet some hippie’s standards of “human-like”. Take what you want from the great apes and the whales, put the lower races back in chains where they belong, and put the weakness that is engulfing the human race to rest once more.

We’re already beginning to see the weakness that the lack of natural selection breeds — look at the obesity rates in America. These are the fattest, stupidest, most worthless people on Earth, and all because most of them have never been told “work, or starve.” It doesn’t even take a significant genetic change to turn us into cattle; can you imagine what a millenium of a race living as Americans do now would do to the species?

Posted by: wwliii 06/25/09 5:54 pm
The title should read “Whales Are as Much Like People as Apes Are.” In my opinion whales are better than we are. You don’t see them screwing over one another for promotions or having wars over religion, etc. I’d say they are more human than we claim to be, whatever that is.

Posted by: TheThirdEye 06/25/09 5:57 pm
slaani asked,
“…can you imagine what a millenium of a race living as Americans do now would do to the species?”

Yes, they would eat them

Posted by: reHEARSal 06/25/09 6:38 pm
@slaani

and who are these lower races you speak of?

Posted by: ahbehseh 06/25/09 7:11 pm
@slaani

“put the lower races back in chains where they belong”

Is this a joke? Or do you really have a time traveling computer where you can post messages to us from your time, 300 years ago? Welcome to the twenty-first century.

Posted by: Benjamin 06/25/09 7:15 pm
We could all learn from the great Dalai Lama: HARM NO THING!

I do love steak and chicken… and lamb and pork. That’s where the problem lay, judging which species are fair game and which aren’t based on supposed intelligence. Do we have to test which animals are intelligent and which aren’t? Why can’t we use commonsense judgement and proclaim that they appear intelligent therefore they are - lets not eat them? Better still not eat animals… but that makes my stomach cry.

Posted by: photoprinter 06/25/09 7:22 pm
So they are smart BFD. What a shock! They are mammals, with a big brain for crying out loud! But they are still animals. THEY ARE NOT HUMANS! Do they build roads? Hospitals? Write plays? Hay, whales are not cute & cuddly. They kill & eat other animals. It does not happen very often, but given a chance & a reason, they will kill & eat you too! So will an ape! Grow up! The world is a dangerous place. Oh, and BTW, I read most of the stuff in this article in a book called “Mind in the Water” 40 years ago!

Posted by: grocerysack 06/25/09 8:12 pm
Whales Might Be as Much Like People as Apes Are. BAH! They don’t have thumbs, walk, use sticks, look kinda like people sometimes, beg for food by cars, type on computers, go into space, and grow fur. WHALES? BAH!

Posted by: juiceb0x 06/25/09 9:23 pm
grocerysack=fail

By people they mean personality and intelligence wise. This has absolutely nothing to do with physical appearance.

Posted by: DrNeroCF 06/25/09 10:56 pm
Save cute things, disregard the uncute things!

Posted by: rfrancis1980 06/26/09 12:33 am
@ photoprinter

Let’s see you build roads, hospitals, or write plays if your arms were chopped off above the elbows.

Whale and dolphin flippers can’t even touch. How human-centric of you.

Posted by: bugbrain_04 06/26/09 2:33 am
I can’t believe there hasn’t been a hitchhiker’s guide reference yet.
Seriously though, what if we find out dolphins really are more intelligent than humans? Sure, they don’t build roads, but they don’t need to. What purpose would roads (or high-speed sea-tubes or whatever) serve in an ocean? If they want to get someplace faster, they ride a faster current. Hospitals are a byproduct of large, densely populated communities. If you live, say, at the end of some long-ass back-country road in the middle of the rocky mountains, you might have to drive a very very long way to get to a hospital. However, there might be this guy that lives 10 miles away who knows how to properly splint a broken arm.
And how do you know that they don’t write plays? Everyone knows that dolphins can perform, maybe they can create the works to be performed as well.
“But what about all the technological advanced humanity has made? You don’t see dolphins using dolphin-computers or telephones or even a lever.”
And as a result, they have no material possessions. Are you SURE we’re the smarter ones?

Posted by: bugbrain_04 06/26/09 2:35 am
This is all, of course, excluding the possibility of some majestic undiscovered underwater dolphin city somewhere.

Posted by: Wisdo 06/26/09 4:36 am
Are hippos lawyers?

They might not resemble lawyers in any way, but like lawyers they do attack boats on the zambizi for reasons of territoriality. They may not carry briefcases, but a hippos’ giant teeth are analogous to a lawyers enormous fees.

Hippos.

Posted by: whaley 06/26/09 6:27 am
Man, you are black and stormy. Paul Watson DOES something worthwhile, what do you do other than post hate comments?

Posted by: IrquiM 06/26/09 7:20 am
Whale…. with pommes au gratin - nom nom nom!

Posted by: photoprinter 06/26/09 9:14 am
Granted, Cetaceans ARE smart. And I do hope whaling will be stopped. They probably DO have a great vocabulary. But ALL animals do. May not be vocal, but any animal can communicate with others, or us. If you have a horse, you better damn well learn what he is saying to you REAL quick, or you will get hurt REAL quick. Even our Chihuahua can communicate with us. She stands on me, & licks me in face every morning to go out. Ever watch a pack of wolves? They have a social system, communicate with each other, work as a team. Are they “human like’? As smart as Apes? All I am saying is that in there own way, ALL animals are as smart as they need to be.

Posted by: barbarosa80503 06/26/09 10:53 am
hippos are doctors…. the hipo-cratic oath..

but really… the issue is… this whole planet we live on is a web of dependencies that we are too arrogant to discover still. we.. humanoids have been lucky that we do not have ‘hunters of men’ that would change everything. the idea that some creatures have also attained ‘personhood’ or self awareness and social constructs… well personally the question I THINK is what is next? what is next for humanoids? it is very arguable that we … WE ARE the virus on the planet… because we do not play with others. a big question for science fiction to toy with…

Posted by: hernanc 06/26/09 11:07 am
Aliens will come some day, but we’ll have Kirk and his crew to come back in time and fish a pair of whales to put them in transparent aluminium and send them to the future present so they can speak to the aliens saving our planet. So, in a sense, this already happened.

Posted by: muD 06/26/09 11:08 am
@Benjamin - eat all the steak you want, cows are dumb. Pigs are more intelligent than most of the posters on this board and lambs play like a litter of puppies. Give lambs a ball and they’ll play with it like a dog. Chickens aren’t exactly rocket scientists, but some of them will develop a personality. If your goal is to only eat the stupid stick with the bovines: consistently dumb.

Posted by: jackmabry 06/26/09 7:17 pm
Once again, we have people believing that just because great apes and dolphins can supposedly recognize themselves, they have self-awareness. First of all, the testing needs to be checked carefully, as the tester’s bias is very likely to influence the findings. Before accepting such a premise, the subject’s being tested should be kept away from a mirror for a month, then shown the mirror with no warning. Then let’s see if they recognize themselves, I suspect they will not. If this test were given to almost any human older than 5 or 6, they would immediately recognize themselves.
Even if the animal being tested passed this test, there is a huge difference between self-recognition and self-awareness. Self-awareness requires an intelligence that allows one to understand the society in which it exists, and how to interact with others in a way that meaningful thoughts can be exchanged and acted upon. It also requires a knowledge of it’s own pending death, and how that relates to it’s own life, and other lives. Which, by the way, no animal is aware of it’s own pending death. And thus, all animals, other than humans, are incapable of self-awareness.

Posted by: cessan 06/26/09 9:31 pm
Hey, whales let’s see if you guys can endure until the jackasses that call themselves human get self-extinct drowned in their own idiocy and greed. If so, you can live in peace. But it is possible the psychotic apes will kill everything bigger than cockroaches in their self-inflicted way to oblivion. If so, rest in peace.

Posted by: nanokiwi 06/26/09 9:40 pm
The research results from Japanese scientists are in: “Whales are delicious!”

Posted by: joyofsomeone 06/27/09 8:36 am
Sorry, but @ barbarosa80503, “WE ARE the virus on the planet”? Pet hate of mine.

I have yet to see a virus that builds cities, writes plays, paints masterpieces, fights wars, domesticates microbes, etc. We are not a virus. We are not a cancer. We’re humanity, so please stop with the untrue analogies. Viruses and cancers cannot realise what they’re doing, cannot try to stop. We, however, can.

Posted by: digi051669 06/27/09 9:24 am
You would imagine with all the tech we now have, we would not need to go whaling. We dun need their fat to make perfume, Japanese dun have to eat their meat and the fisherman should go to wall st. bowl in hand and ask those white collar criminals to spare some F$%#king change and not let their lovers and wife go on million dollar shopping sprees. Government then does not need to bailout the fisherman. X:D

Posted by: philko 06/27/09 1:07 pm
All of the supposed reasons for not considering whales/dolphins at the same level as humans that I see in these comments boil down to examples if intelligence ENHANCED/ENABLED BY TECHNOLOGY. Strip humans of the tech and all of the accomplishments that tech made possible and *then* make you comparisons to primates and cetaceans. That would be a much more legitimate comparison.

Take a look at our ancestors from about 15,000 years ago? Would anyone claim that they weren’t “human”? Even though they didn’t have cities, symphonies, hospitals or even a simple ShamWow?

Posted by: RealityMonster 06/27/09 1:11 pm
@jackmabry What an absurd statement. You can’t know whether or not any other creature has knowledge of its death. I can come up with trivial counter examples, in fact: cats know of their impending death. They move themselves to a location where they won’t interfere with the group that they live with, and die quietly on their own.

I’m sure that many creatures that sacrifice themselves for their groups or clans are also likely to understand their impending death.

Stop talking out of your rear. You can disagree, but you’re going to have to come up with arguments actually based in reality if you’re going to convince anyone else.

Posted by: eueueu 06/27/09 2:06 pm
It’s not because they are almost human that we should not kill them, it’s because they are sentient beings, much like we or any other superior animal.

Posted by: markso7 06/27/09 2:37 pm
yeah - MInd in the Waters and several books by John Lilly contained most of the info recycled in this article…

Posted by: WhoAmI 06/27/09 3:26 pm
Posted by: ablackstormy 06/25/09 3:16 pm
“Save a whale, harpoon that fat blowhard Paul Watson instead”

Agreed…

Posted by: robertg222 06/27/09 11:33 pm
Save a whale. Harpoon and environmentalist instead.
This nonsense needs to end.

Posted by: azizpatron 07/27/09 11:50 am
Gekko G
Hiphop
Rap
Turkce rap
Ceza
Sagopa Kajmer
Ayben
Kolera

Posted by: mutater 08/31/09 12:14 pm
@blackandstormy
you have no place posting anything negative, sinnce you are just some fat asshole sitting at a computer somewhere. you just know it’s easier to not care as opposed to caring for animals which at some point would force you off your big fat ass and make you drop your angus 3/4 pounder and do something for conservation. paul watson and his whole crew put their lives in constant danger to save the lives of these innocent animals, while you just sit around, eating mcdonalds and jackin off to child porn all damn day. get a life

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Hidden Whale Culture Could Be Critical to Species Survival
By Brandon Keim June 24, 2009 | 2:15 pm | Categories: Animals




Though it sounds at first like a marine biologist’s take on political correctness, respecting the cultural diversity of whales may be essential to saving them.

Scientists are accustomed to thinking of whale populations in terms of genetic diversity. But even when they share the same genes, groups of whales can live in very different ways, raising the possibility that species might be saved even while individual cultures vanish. The tragedy of cultural extinction aside, cultural diversity may sustain the long-term health of Earth’s cetaceans.

“We have no idea what’s going on. As we mess up the world, it goes off in all kinds of weird directions,” said biologist Hal Whitehead of Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia. ”The more diversity that’s out there, both genetic and cultural, the more whales can deal with it.”

That whales could even have culture is a relatively new scientific proposition. It was not unil the late 1960s that recordings of humpback whale songs provided a glimpse of the unexpectedly complicated and beautiful world of cetacean communication. The songs don’t appear — for now — to reach the level of language, but they’re clearly a form of learned communicative behavior common across the cetacean realm. And as researchers spend more time with whales, they’re realizing just how much their learned behaviors differ.

Continue Reading “Hidden Whale Culture Could Be Critical to Species Survival” »

Tags: conservation, Culture, Oceans, whales Post Comment | Comments (7) | Permalink


What It Sounds Like to Be a Whale
By Brandon Keim June 22, 2009 | 3:49 pm | Categories: Animals


When the International Whaling Commission meets this week to discuss the future of whale hunting, aquatic noise pollution will be low on the agenda, if it’s discussed at all. But noise from humanity’s ships may pose as great a threat to the magnificent creatures as any hunting fleet’s harpoons.

Whales evolved in an environment where visibility is limited but sound practically unimpeded. They rely on hearing to find food, navigate, and communicate, calling to each other with elaborate vocalizations that can be heard for hundreds of miles, even, in the case of species like the blue whale’s low sonic frequencies, across an entire ocean. Hearing is as important to whales as sight is to humans, if not more.

In the last decade, scientists have realized that noise generated by ships often drowns the natural sounds of the sea. Some types of sonar, especially those used by military vessels, can be heard for hundreds of miles. Together with engine noise, these produce an aquatic roar heard across Earth’s oceans, often at levels that humans associate with airports and rock concerts.

To get a first-person sense of what it’s like to be a whale, plug some headphones into your computer, close your eyes, and listen to this humpback whale song. It was recorded in a noise pollution-free environment. Then listen to this song, recorded in the waters off New York Harbor.

The effects of oceanic noise pollution are still being quantified. Awareness of the phenomenon is relatively new, and studying whale behavior is difficult. But loud noises have been linked to mass beachings and the departure of some species from traditional habitats. That may be just the beginning, especially when it comes to the effects of noise on whale communication and culture.

“We know very little about the effects of noise pollution, though the more we learn, the scarier it is,” said Hal Whitehead, a Dalhousie University biologist and one of the world’s foremost experts in whale vocalization. “And we know little about whale talk, though the more we learn, the more interesting it is.”

See Also:

Unique Killer-Whale Pod Doomed by Exxon Valdez
Supreme Court: National Security Trumps Whales, Environmental Law

Hydrophones Help Scientists Pinpoint, Protect Right Whales
Image: NOAA

Audio: Natural Resources Defense Council

Brandon Keim’s Twitter stream and reportorial outtakes; Wired Science on Twitter.

Tags: bioacoustics, noise pollution, whales Post Comment | Comments (3) | Permalink

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News for Your Neurons All posts tagged ‘whales’
Whales Might Be as Much Like People as Apes Are
By Brandon Keim June 25, 2009 2:13 pm Categories: Animals, Ethics


As the annual International Whaling Commission meeting stumbles to a close, unable to negotiate a compromise between whaling opponents and people who’ve killed more than 40,000 whales since 1985, scientists say these aquatic mammals are more than mere animals. They might even deserve to be considered people.

Not human people, but as occupying a similar range on the spectrum as the great apes, for whom the idea of personhood has moved from preposterous to possible. Chimpanzees, gorillas and bonobos possess self-awareness, feelings and high-level cognitive powers. According to a steadily gathering body of research, so do whales and dolphins.

In fact, their capacities could be even more ancient than our own, dating to an evolutionary explosion in brain size that took place millions of years before the last common ancestor of the great apes existed.

“If an alien came down anytime prior to about 1.5 million years ago to communicate with the ‘brainiest’ animals on Earth, they would have tripped over our own ancestors and headed straight for the oceans to converse with the dolphins,” said Lori Marino, an evolutionary neurobiologist at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center.

The idea of whale personhood makes all the more haunting the prospect that Earth’s cetaceans, many of whom were hunted to the brink of extinction in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, are still threatened. Continue Reading “Whales Might Be as Much Like People as Apes Are” »

Tags: Cognition, Culture, dolphins, Evolution, language, personhood, whales Post Comment Comments (38) Permalink Hidden Whale Culture Could Be Critical to Species Survival
By Brandon Keim June 24, 2009 2:15 pm Categories: Animals


Though it sounds at first like a marine biologist’s take on political correctness, respecting the cultural diversity of whales may be essential to saving them.

Scientists are accustomed to thinking of whale populations in terms of genetic diversity. But even when they share the same genes, groups of whales can live in very different ways, raising the possibility that species might be saved even while individual cultures vanish. The tragedy of cultural extinction aside, cultural diversity may sustain the long-term health of Earth’s cetaceans.

“We have no idea what’s going on. As we mess up the world, it goes off in all kinds of weird directions,” said biologist Hal Whitehead of Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia. ”The more diversity that’s out there, both genetic and cultural, the more whales can deal with it.”

That whales could even have culture is a relatively new scientific proposition. It was not unil the late 1960s that recordings of humpback whale songs provided a glimpse of the unexpectedly complicated and beautiful world of cetacean communication. The songs don’t appear — for now — to reach the level of language, but they’re clearly a form of learned communicative behavior common across the cetacean realm. And as researchers spend more time with whales, they’re realizing just how much their learned behaviors differ.

Continue Reading “Hidden Whale Culture Could Be Critical to Species Survival” »

Tags: conservation, Culture, Oceans, whales Post Comment Comments (7) Permalink What It Sounds Like to Be a Whale
By Brandon Keim June 22, 2009 3:49 pm Categories: Animals


When the International Whaling Commission meets this week to discuss the future of whale hunting, aquatic noise pollution will be low on the agenda, if it’s discussed at all. But noise from humanity’s ships may pose as great a threat to the magnificent creatures as any hunting fleet’s harpoons.

Whales evolved in an environment where visibility is limited but sound practically unimpeded. They rely on hearing to find food, navigate, and communicate, calling to each other with elaborate vocalizations that can be heard for hundreds of miles, even, in the case of species like the blue whale’s low sonic frequencies, across an entire ocean. Hearing is as important to whales as sight is to humans, if not more.

In the last decade, scientists have realized that noise generated by ships often drowns the natural sounds of the sea. Some types of sonar, especially those used by military vessels, can be heard for hundreds of miles. Together with engine noise, these produce an aquatic roar heard across Earth’s oceans, often at levels that humans associate with airports and rock concerts.

To get a first-person sense of what it’s like to be a whale, plug some headphones into your computer, close your eyes, and listen to this humpback whale song. It was recorded in a noise pollution-free environment. Then listen to this song, recorded in the waters off New York Harbor.

The effects of oceanic noise pollution are still being quantified. Awareness of the phenomenon is relatively new, and studying whale behavior is difficult. But loud noises have been linked to mass beachings and the departure of some species from traditional habitats. That may be just the beginning, especially when it comes to the effects of noise on whale communication and culture.

“We know very little about the effects of noise pollution, though the more we learn, the scarier it is,” said Hal Whitehead, a Dalhousie University biologist and one of the world’s foremost experts in whale vocalization. “And we know little about whale talk, though the more we learn, the more interesting it is.”

See Also:

Unique Killer-Whale Pod Doomed by Exxon Valdez
Supreme Court: National Security Trumps Whales, Environmental Law

Hydrophones Help Scientists Pinpoint, Protect Right Whales
Image: NOAA

Audio: Natural Resources Defense Council

Brandon Keim’s Twitter stream and reportorial outtakes; Wired Science on Twitter.

Tags: bioacoustics, noise pollution, whales Post Comment Comments (3) Permalink

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