Personal profile

Research overview

"The true biologist deals with life, with teeming boisterous life, and learns something from it, learns that the first rule of life is living"
John Steinbeck, The Log from the Sea of Cortez

 Follow me on Twitter: @_lrendell

ResearcherID: G-2594-2010 

I am a Reader in Biology affiliated with the Scottish Ocean Institute, Sea Mammal Research Unit, the Centre for Biological Diversity, the Centre for Social Learning and Cognitive Evolution, and the Institute of Behavioural and Neural Sciences.

I have broad research interests, largely centred around the evolution of learning, behaviour and communication, with a special focus on marine mammals.

Latest paper(s)

From Beethoven to Beyoncé: do changing aesthetic cultures amount to ‘cumulative cultural evolution’? Sinclair, N. C., Ursell, J., South, A. & Rendell, L., 9 Feb 2022, In: Frontiers in Psychology

Culture can be defined as “group typical behaviour patterns shared by members of a community that rely on socially learned and transmitted information” (Laland and Hoppitt, 2003, p. 151). Once thought to be a distinguishing characteristic of humans relative to other animals (Dean et al., 2014) it is now generally accepted to exist more widely, with especially abundant evidence in non-human primates, cetaceans, and birds (Rendell and Whitehead, 2001Aplin, 2019Whiten, 2021). More recently, cumulative cultural evolution (CCE) has taken on this distinguishing role (Henrich, 2015Laland, 2018). CCE, it is argued, allows humans, uniquely, to ratchet up the complexity or efficiency of cultural traits over time. This “ratchet effect” (Tomasello, 1994) gives the capacity to accumulate beneficial modifications over time beyond the capacities of a single individual (Sasaki and Biro, 2017). Mesoudi and Thornton (2018) define a core set of criteria for identifying CCE in humans and non-human animals that places emphasis on some performance measure of traits increasing over time. They suggest this emphasis is also pertinent to cultural products in the aesthetic domain, but is this the case? Music, art and dance evolve over time (Savage, 2019), but can we say they gain beneficial modifications that increase their aesthetic value? Here we bring together perspectives from philosophy, musicology and biology to build a conceptual analysis of this question. We summarise current thinking on cumulative culture and aesthetics across fields to determine how aesthetic culture fits into the concept of CCE. We argue that this concept is problematic to reconcile with dominant views of aesthetics in philosophical analysis and struggles to characterise aesthetic cultures that evolve over time. We suggest that a tension arises from fundamental differences between cultural evolution in aesthetic and technological domains. Furthermore, this tension contributes to current debates between reconstructive and preservative theories of cultural evolution.

Short range hunters: exploring the function and constraints of water shooting in dwarf gouramis. Jones, N. A. R., Klump, B., Abaurrea, T., Harrower, S., Marr, C., Scott, L., Rendell, L. & Webster, M.Dec 2021In: Journal of Experimental Biology

Ballistic predation is a rare foraging adaptation: in fishes, most attention has focused on a single genus, the archerfish, known to manipulate water to shoot down prey above the water surface. However, several gourami species also exhibit apparently similar ‘shooting’ behaviour, spitting water up to 5 cm above the surface. In a series of experiments, we explored the shooting behaviour and aspects of its significance as a foraging ability in the dwarf gourami (Trichogaster lalius). We investigated sex differences in shooting abilities to determine whether gourami shooting is related to the sex-specific bubble nest manufacture where males mix air and water at the surface to form bubbles. We found that, actually, both sexes were equally able to shoot and could learn to shoot a novel target. In a second experiment, we presented untrained gouramis with opportunities to shoot at live prey and found they successfully shot down both fruit flies and crickets. Finally, we explored the effect of target height on shooting performance to establish potential constraints of shooting as a foraging ability. The frequency of attempted shots and success of hitting targets decreased with height, whereas latency to shoot increased. We also observed that repeatable individual differences account for variation in these measures of shooting performance. Together, our results provide evidence that gourami shooting has a foraging function analogous to that of archerfish. Gourami shooting may serve as an example of convergent evolution and provide opportunities for comparative studies into the, as yet unexplored, ecology and evolution of shooting in fishes.

Our book, The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins is even available at Amazon! Hear it discussed on BBC Radio 4's "Start the Week". Listen to a podcast of a discussion between myself and author Phillip Hoare at the LSE Philosophy Forum here


Sperm whale society and ecology
I have been studying the ecologycommunication and societies of sperm whales, the largest of the toothed whales, showing how long lasting social groups use distinctive vocal dialects that appear to be culturally transmitted. Part of this work is my involvement in running the Balearics Sperm Whale Project and as a collaborator of the Dominica Sperm Whale Project.

Culture in whales and dolphins
In whales and dolphins we find examples of both complex communication and apparently widespread social learning, a simple form of culture. I am using statistical models to assess the evidence for social learning in wild cetaceans.

Learning in archerfish
Archerfish have the highly specialised hunting tactic of shooting down prey with water jets. The dexterity and accuracy with which they do this has made them a model system in visual cognition. We are studying their shooting behaviour and learning to understand how this adaptation has interacted with their cognition.

Human social learning
I use experimental approaches to understand how we negotiate the trade-offs involved in deciding whether to use social information to make simple decisions, as a window into how we have evolved to make best use of our cultural inheritance.

Evolutionary modelling
I also use evolutionary simulation models to understand how these processes like social learning might have evolved, and how they might be related to the evolution of other kinds of behaviour, such as cooperation and niche-construction.

East Coast Marine Mammal Acoustic Study (ECOMMAS)
We are deploying passive listening buoys along the Scottish coastline in collaboration with Marine Scotland Science to monitor the impact of coastal windfarm development and also to give insight into acoustic behaviour of marine mammals.


We value outreach work highly. Here are some links to some recent activities that myself and other lab members have been involved with:


Science without borders!

An approach to academic life: 12 guidelines for survival



Dr Nick Jones completed his PhD "Social behaviour and learning in Archerfish" in 2020.

Dr Luca Lamoni completed his PhD "The role of individual behaviour in the collective cultural evolution of humpback whale songs” in 2018.

Dr Ellen Garland held her Newton International Fellowship in our group from 2015 to 2017.

Dr Kaitlin Palmer completed her PhD "Large-Scale and Long-Term Passive Acoustic Monitoring of Coastal Bottlenose Dolphins" in 2017

Dr Elena Miu completed her PhD “Understanding human culture : theoretical and experimental studies of cumulative culture” in 2017

Dr Charlotte Dunn finished her PhD "Insights into Blainville's Beaked Whale (Mesoplodon densirostris) communication" in January 2015

Dr Thomas Morgan completed his PhD, co-supervised with Kevin Laland and titled "Experimental studies of human social learning and its evolution" in December 2013

Dr Laurel Fogarty completed her PhD, co-supervised with Kevin Laland and titled "From social learning to culture: Mathematical and computational models of cultural evolution" in June 2012

Dr Ricardo Antunes completed his PhD, co-supervised with Phil Hammond and Jonathan Gordon, and titled "Variation in sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus) coda vocalizations and social structure in the North Atlantic Ocean" in March 2009


Expertise related to UN Sustainable Development Goals

In 2015, UN member states agreed to 17 global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure prosperity for all. This person’s work contributes towards the following SDG(s):

  • SDG 3 - Good Health and Well-being
  • SDG 13 - Climate Action
  • SDG 14 - Life Below Water


Dive into the research topics where Luke Edward Rendell is active. These topic labels come from the works of this person. Together they form a unique fingerprint.
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Collaborations and top research areas from the last five years

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