Culture and social learning in baleen whales

Ellen Clare Garland*, Emma Louise Carroll

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


Culture, the sharing of behaviors or information within a community acquired through some form of social learning from conspecifics, represents a “second inheritance system”. This assertion, while still controversial, is a clear indication that culture and the study of social learning in animals is no longer a taboo subject. Some of the strongest evidence for culture in animals has come from the study of cetaceans; while the focus has typically been on the odontocetes (mainly sperm whales, killer whales, and bottlenose dolphins), baleen whales provide important, unique, and robust evidence for cultural processes. Baleen whales undertake a myriad of behaviors across a variety of contexts. Some of these behaviors have been investigated with a cultural lens and have clearly shown maternally directed (and thus culturally transmitted) site fidelity to breeding, feeding and migratory routes, dynamic cultural transmission of song, and social transmission of novel feeding techniques. Undertaking cultural studies in large, free-ranging cetaceans requires multiyear, long-term datasets with enough detail to track changes; such datasets are rare and take decades to accumulate. However, we are now seeing a number of such datasets come to light, and the results are spectacular. Here, we first provide an overview of culture and its transmission; we then highlight some of the clearest examples of baleen whale culture to date, concluding with research considerations. Culture and its influence on the lives of cetaceans can no longer be ignored as, to paraphrase some of the pioneers in the cetacean culture field, it is now clear that culture rules their [cetaceans’] lives.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationEthology and behavioral ecology of mysticetes
EditorsChristopher W. Clark, Ellen C. Garland
Place of PublicationCham
PublisherSpringer Nature
Number of pages15
ISBN (Electronic)9783030984496
ISBN (Print)9783030984489, 9783030984519
Publication statusPublished - 3 Jul 2022

Publication series

NameEthology and behavioral ecology of marine mammals
ISSN (Print)2523-7500
ISSN (Electronic)2523-7519


  • Animal culture
  • Social learning
  • Cultural processes
  • Song
  • Migration
  • Feeding
  • Vocal learning
  • Isotopes


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