F Rosa Rubicondior: Creationism in Crisis - Social Learning Is Part of Beaked Whale Culture - Just Like Humans

Sunday 11 February 2024

Creationism in Crisis - Social Learning Is Part of Beaked Whale Culture - Just Like Humans

Surprising Behavior in One of the Least Studied Mammals in the World - SDU

Continuing where I left off with the account of how orcas (killer whales) form distinct cultures based on food, hunting strategies, location and dialect, which parallel human cultures in many way, we now have evidence that at least one of the 24 known species of the beaked whales, Baird's beaked whale, form cultural groups, and that another 'human' trait - social learning - is involved in the formation of these cultures.

Creationists, of course, continue to insist that only humans form cultures and have the social ethics that hold them together because they were specially created in a way that makes them materially different to all other animals, and by the circular reason that often typifies creationist arguments, this proves they were specially created by a god who holds them in the highest esteem.

s But as we are learning, almost all the traits creationists try to claim are uniquely human and therefore proof of our special creation, are turning out to be common to many other species, especially mammals, and so are evidence for common ancestry and evolution by descent with modification.

The little-known beaked whale, a relative of orcas and dolphins, has recently been observed changing its habitat and hunting strategy by a process of social learning. This is the same process by which growing children adopt the social norms and customs of their culture and how people from other cultures can assimilate into unfamiliar cultures. Essentially it means observing others and memorizing what they do in any given situation.

This observation was made by researchers from the University of Southern Denmark (SDU) led by Olga Filatova, a whale expert and postdoc at Department of Biology and SDU Climate Cluster. She led the study which showed that some pods of orcas in the Pacific have occupied the same area since the last Ice Age glacial maximum, 20,000 years ago when they occupied warmer refugia and adopted them as permanent territories. The same study showed how orcas form distinct 'ecotypes' which are genetically isolated from other ecotypes by cultural barriers to interbreeding.

For the beaked whale study, the team observed a population of Baird's beaked whales, which has unexpectedly been found near the coast and in shallower waters than previously observed.

Their work has been published, open access, in the journal Animal Behaviour and is explained in a SDU press release by Birgitte Svennevig:
Beaked whales are among the least studied mammals in the world. Now, a new study reveals surprising information about the Baird's beaked whale species.

Some animals live in such remote and inaccessible regions of the globe that it is nearly impossible to study them in their natural habitats. Beaked whales, of which 24 species have been found so far, are among them: They live far from land and in deep oceanic waters, where they search for food at depths of 500 meters and more.

Beaked whales

We know 24 species of beaked whales, which belong to the toothed whales. Some are known only from strandings and skull finds, and photos of them are generally rare. Baird's beaked whale is the largest of the beaked whales, reaching a length of up to 10 meters. The female is slightly larger than the male. Both females and males have a characteristic underbite with two pairs of teeth in the lower jaw.
The record holder for the deepest dive by a mammal is a Cuvier's beaked whale, which in 2014 was measured to dive at least 2992 meters. A beaked whale also holds the mammalian record for the longest dive; 222 minutes.

Now, the world gets a new and surprising insight into the world of distant beaked whales through a scientific study of a population of Baird's beaked whales. The population has unexpectedly been found near the coast and in shallower waters than previously observed. These whales have for the first time, been recorded as having a culture which depends on horizontal social learning, much like human culture.

The study is led by whale biologists Olga Filatova and Ivan Fedutin from the University of Southern Denmark/Fjord & Bælt, and it is published in the journal Animal Behaviour.

Filatova and Fedutin have many years of whale studies in the northern Pacific behind them, and it was during an expedition to the Commander Islands in 2008 that they first saw a group of Baird's beaked whales near the coast.

We were there to look for killer whales and humpback whales, so we just noted that we had seen a group of Baird's beaked whales and didn't do much about it. But we also saw them in the following years, and after five years, we suspected that it was a stable community frequently visiting the same area. We saw them every year until 2020, when Covid 19 prevented us from going back to the Commander Islands.

Dr. Olga Filatova, lead author
Department of Biology
University of Southern Denmark, Odense, Denmark.

The studied population of Baird's beaked whales came close to the coast - within four km from land, and they were observed in shallow water; less than 300 meters.

Olga Filatova, … points out that the population likely has adapted to this particular habitat and thus deviates from the established perception that all beaked whales roam far out at sea and in deep waters.

It is uncharacteristic for this species, it means that you cannot expect all individuals within a specific species to behave the same way. This makes it difficult to plan species protection - in this case, for example, you cannot plan based on the assumption that beaked whales only live far out in deep sea. We have shown that they can also live in shallow and coastal waters. There may be other different habitats that we are not aware of yet.

Dr. Olga Filatova
Animals from same species do not behave the same way

There are many examples of individuals from the same whale species not behaving the same. In the whale world, it is common to find groups of the same species living in different places, eating different prey, communicating differently, and not liking to mingle with fellow species in other groups.

Some killer whale groups only hunt marine mammals like seals and porpoises, others only herring. Some humpback whales migrate between the tropics and the Arctic, others are residents in certain areas. Some sperm whale groups develop their own dialects for internal communication and do not like to communicate with others outside the group.

According to Olga Filatova, social learning is at play when groups develop preferences for, for example, habitats and prey.
There are many forms of social learning in the animal world. Imitation is the most complex form; the animal sees what others do and understands the motivation and reasoning behind it. Then there is "local enhancement," where an animal sees another animal heading to a specific place, follows, and learns that the place has value. This has been observed in many animals, including fish.

Olga Filatova believes that the population of Baird's beaked whales at the Commander Islands learns through "local enhancement": They see that some peers go to the shallow water near the coast, follow, and discover that it is a good place, probably because there are many fish.

It becomes a cultural tradition, and it is the first time a cultural tradition has been observed among beaked whales.

Dr. Olga Filatova
Other examples of cultural traditions in whales include when they develop specific hunting traditions: some slap their tails to stun fish, some generate waves to wash seals off ice floes, some chase fish onto the beach.

The researchers observed a total of 186 individuals of the Baird's beaked whale species at the Commander Islands from 2008-2019. 107 were only observed once and thus assessed to be transient whales. 79 individuals were spotted for more than one year and were thus assessed to be residents.

61 of the transient whales were seen interacting with the residents, and seven of them were seen in shallow water.

Social contact

The transients are not as familiar with local conditions as the residents, and therefore, they usually seek food at the depths that are normal for their species. But we actually observed some transients in the shallow area. These were individuals who had some form of social contact with the residents. It must be in that contact that they learned about the shallow water and its advantages

Dr. Olga Filatova
It is unclear how many Baird's beaked whales exist in the world.
Technical details of the study and the background to the research are in the team's open access paper in Animal Behaviour:
  • We report on the first possible cultural tradition in beaked whales.
  • Some Baird's beaked whales used a shallow area, which is atypical for this species.
  • Resident whales familiar with the local conditions often used the shallow area.
  • Only those transients that had social bonds with residents occurred in the shallows.
  • The knowledge of the shallow area is transmitted through social learning.

Socially transmitted behavioural patterns (i.e. cultural traditions) have been observed in many whale species from large baleen whales to small dolphins. However, no cultural traditions have been described so far in beaked whales, an elusive and poorly studied group of toothed whales. In this study we report a local population of Baird's beaked whales, Berardius bairdii, in the Commander Islands regularly using a shallow area with depths of less than 300 m which is uncharacteristic for this species. We analysed the distribution of this behaviour and mtDNA haplotypes among individual whales to explore whether it represents a cultural tradition and whether it is transmitted vertically within separate maternal lineages or horizontally among nonrelated whales. We found that the whales that frequently visited the study area, and therefore were familiar with the underwater landscape, often used the shallow areas of the shelf slope, while transient whales, unfamiliar with the local conditions, mostly adhered to the depth range typical of their species. Only those transient whales that maintained social bonds with residents were sometimes observed in shallow areas. Order-of-acquisition diffusion analysis showed that social transmission of knowledge about the shallow habitat was significantly more likely than individual asocial learning. Two mtDNA haplotypes were shared between whales that used the shallow areas and those that did not, suggesting that these categories did not represent separate maternal lineages. We conclude that knowledge of the shallow areas is transmitted horizontally through social learning, and therefore this is an example of a local cultural tradition.
Many animals acquire part of their behavioural repertoire through social learning. Variations in animal behaviour transmitted by social learning rather than genetics and persistent over time can be attributed to cultural traditions (Fragaszy & Perry, 2003). Cultural traditions can affect the fitness of their bearers, changing the strength and even the direction of natural selection (Tishkoff et al., 2007; Whitehead et al., 2017, 2019; Whiten, 2005). Elucidating these patterns is therefore critical to understanding the evolution of species that transmit behaviours through social learning.

Cetaceans are one of the groups with a particularly rich repertoire of cultural traditions (Rendell & Whitehead, 2001, Whitehead & Rendell, 2014). Humpback whales, Megaptera novaeangliae (rorquals, Mysticeti) and killer whales, Orcinus orca (oceanic dolphins, Odontoceti) have well-documented hunting and vocal traditions that include carousel fishing (Similä & Ugarte, 1993), tail slapping to stun fish (Allen et al., 2013; Domenici et al., 2000; Weinrich et al., 1992), intentional stranding (Guinet & Bouvier, 1995), wave washing seals from ice floes (Pitman & Durban, 2012), as well as vocal dialects or songs (Ford, 1991; Payne & McVay, 1971; Zandberg et al., 2021). Another genus of dolphins with well-described hunting traditions is the bottlenose dolphin, Tursiops spp. These dolphins are known to use various sophisticated techniques such as strand feeding (Sargeant et al., 2005.1), cooperative foraging with fishermen (Daura-Jorge et al., 2012.1), driver-barrier feeding (Gazda et al., 2005.2), mud ring feeding (Engleby & Powell, 2019.1), and using tools, particularly sponges (Krützen et al., 2014.1; Wild et al., 2019.2).

In addition to rorquals and oceanic dolphins, cetaceans from other families also exhibit cultural traditions, including right whales, Eubalaena spp. (Carroll et al., 2015), sperm whales, Physeter macrocephalus (Cantor & Whitehead, 2015.1; Rendell & Whitehead, 2003.1) and beluga whales, Delphinapterus leucas (O'Corry-Crowe et al., 2018). For some families, however, no cultural traditions have been described so far. These include porpoises, pygmy and dwarf sperm whales, Kogia breviceps and Kogia sima, and beaked whales.

Beaked whales (family Ziphiidae) are one of the least studied families among cetaceans. The 24 species of beaked whales typically range offshore in deep waters or around shelf slope areas, which are inaccessible for research from small boats. Their preference for deep ocean or shelf slope waters, as well as long dives, shyness, low surface profile and lack of visible blow in some species make them difficult to detect, especially in rougher sea states.

The Baird's beaked whale, Berardius bairdii, is the largest member of the Ziphiidae family and one of the few beaked whales that produce a distinctive blow, enabling detection from a distance of several kilometres. Fedutin et al. (2015.2) demonstrated that Baird's beaked whales live in a fission–fusion society with some stable alliances: clusters of individuals (mostly known or presumed males) that retained stable associations over several years. Complex social systems and advanced cognitive abilities have been suggested as good predictors of animal culture (Roper, 1986). The complex social structure suggests that Baird's beaked whales are probably capable of social learning and transmitting elaborate behavioural patterns. However, no cultural traditions have been described for this species or any other member of the Ziphiidae family.

Behavioural patterns are considered culturally transmitted when they are passed within or across generations through social learning. Several mechanisms of social learning have been described in animals (Rendell et al., 2011), ranging from imitation, which is only possible in cognitively complex species, to simpler mechanisms, which have been shown to exist even in species as cognitively simple as guppies, Poecilia reticulata (Laland & Williams, 1997). Therefore, the presence of some forms of social learning in beaked whales seems plausible, and the absence of records can be attributed to the extreme difficulty of observing behaviour in these species.

In this paper we report a local population of Baird's beaked whales in the Commander Islands regularly using a shallow area of the shelf slope with depths less than 300 m which is uncharacteristic for this species. We analyse the extent of this behaviour among individual whales and explore whether it can be transmitted though social learning and therefore represents a cultural tradition. We review the spread of this behaviour across the social network among the resident and transient whales using network-based diffusion analysis and compare it to genetic markers to consider all possible explanations for this phenomenon from individual or social learning to genetic transmission.
Figure 2. Spatial distribution of resident, mixed and transient group sightings off the southwestern coast of Bering Island. Points show encounters with resident, mixed and transient groups (see the colour coding in the legend). Shaded areas show kernel ranges for (a) resident, (b) mixed and (c) transient groups.
Filatova, O.A.; Fedutin, I.D.; Meschersky, I.G.; Mamaev, E.G.; Hoyt, E.
Unusual use of shallow habitats may be evidence of a cultural tradition in Baird's beaked whales
Animal Behaviour 209 (121), 121-128; DOI: 10.1016/j.anbehav.2023.12.021

Copyright: © 2024 The authors.
Published by Elsevier B.V. Open access.
Reprinted under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license (CC BY 4.0)
And so another sacred dogma of creationism - the cultural 'evidence' for special creation of humans - turns out to be common, especially across the mammals with higher intelligence and cognitive abilities, such as the other great apes and in this case the beaked whales, which have also been observed using social learning to integrate within the culture of other beaked whales, the process by which the entire culture modifies its behaviour.

Social learning of course means observing the behaviour of others and adopting their ways in order to fit in with the group as a whole. Social pressure ensures conformity and a desire to fit in ensure sensitivity to social pressure.

Just another casual and largely unintentional refutation of creationist dogma by science by simply revealing the facts.

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