Mankind has always been fascinated by the other particularly intelligent members of the animal kingdom and, although we are gradually beginning to understand how sophisticated other creatures indeed are, the notion of describing them with “human” characteristics such as “cultural” can still feel quite naive for some. To understand whether an organism possesses a culture we must first define culture for ourselves and its criteria. Unfortunately, there are several descriptions that attempt to define this complex attribute but one of my personal favourite definitions is that of Whitehead & Rendell in their book The cultural lives of whales and dolphins. It states:
”Culture is information or behaviour – shared within a community – which is acquired from conspecifics through some form of social learning”.
We can all agree that social learning, that is the passing of information from one generation within a species onto the next, is one of the key aspects of culture and almost a defining part of its foundation. This characteristic has been observed extensively in cetaceans and takes a variety of forms amongst all the different species, granting all individuals learning abilities that help ensure their survival.
Such learning processes are often extremely complex and difficult to follow since they are largely defined by the social life of each and every individual and these vary massively across all species. Several larger cetaceans, such as the Short-finned pilot whales (Globicephala macrorhynchus) we encountered today, are even assumed to have their own “family culture” that is passed down over several generations. Oceanic dolphins such as the Bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) and the Atlantic spotted dolphins (Stenella frontalis) live in less stable groups and the fluidity of their social lives makes social learning an even more complex process. Here acquaintances with fellow pod members are decisive in their learning processes with long-term friendships even being commonly observed in Bottlenose dolphins.
The highly sophisticated nature of all encountered cetaceans today was clearly visible during our sightings and whether you think they meet the cultural criteria or not is up to you…but these animals are definitely nothing short of special!
By Paula Thake
Sightings of the day
14:30 Atlantic spotted dolphins, Bottlenose dolphins
10:00 Short-finned pilot whales