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Whales Teach One Another Hunting Skill

Cultural transmission is behind the recent spread of a hunting technique called "lobtail" feeding among humpback whales off New England. Sophie Bushwick reports

Chimps show other chimps how to use tools. My roommate showed me some tricks to make better scrambled eggs. Group members teaching each other is called cultural transmission. And a study finds that cultural transmission is behind the spread of a hunting technique among humpback whales off New England. The research is in the journal Science. [Jenny Allen et al., Network-Based Diffusion Analysis Reveals Cultural Transmission of Lobtail Feeding in Humpback Whales]

It’s called "lobtail" feeding: a humpback whale slaps the surface of the water with its tail. The resulting bubbles pen in prey fish, which the whales gobble up. Researchers first saw lobtail feeding in 1980. Within 30 years, 37 percent of observed humpbacks had picked up the technique.

To create mathematical models for the spread of lobtail feeding, researchers used 27 years of data from whale-watching boats in the Gulf of Maine. And the models that included cultural transmission as a factor best matched the data. Those models assumed that humpback whales that spend more time with lobtail feeders were more likely to pick up the method themselves.

Clearly, whales are capable of sophisticated social interactions—and we've only seen the tip of the tail.

—Sophie Bushwick

[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]

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