Evidence from sperm whale clans of symbolic marking in non-human cultures

Taylor A. Hersh*, Shane Gero, Luke Rendell, Maurício Cantor, Lindy Weilgart, Masao Amano, Stephen M. Dawson, Elisabeth Slooten, Christopher M. Johnson, Iain Kerr, Roger Payne, Andy Rogan, Ricardo Antunes, Olive Andrews, Elizabeth L. Ferguson, Cory Ann Hom-Weaver, Thomas F. Norris, Yvonne M. Barkley, Karlina P. Merkens, Erin M. OlesonThomas Doniol-Valcroze, James F. Pilkington, Jonathan Gordon, Manuel Fernandes, Marta Guerra, Leigh Hickmott, Hal Whitehead

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

14 Citations (Scopus)
5 Downloads (Pure)


Culture, a pillar of the remarkable ecological success of humans, is increasingly recognized as a powerful force structuring nonhuman animal populations. A key gap between these two types of culture is quantitative evidence of symbolic markers—seemingly arbitrary traits that function as reliable indicators of cultural group membership to conspecifics. Using acoustic data collected from 23 Pacific Ocean locations, we provide quantitative evidence that certain sperm whale acoustic signals exhibit spatial patterns consistent with a symbolic marker function. Culture segments sperm whale populations into behaviorally distinct clans, which are defined based on dialects of stereotyped click patterns (codas). We classified 23,429 codas into types using contaminated mixture models and hierarchically clustered coda repertoires into seven clans based on similarities in coda usage; then we evaluated whether coda usage varied with geographic distance within clans or with spatial overlap between clans. Similarities in within-clan usage of both “identity codas” (coda types diagnostic of clan identity) and “nonidentity codas” (coda types used by multiple clans) decrease as space between repertoire recording locations increases. However, between-clan similarity in identity, but not nonidentity, coda usage decreases as clan spatial overlap increases. This matches expectations if sympatry is related to a measurable pressure to diversify to make cultural divisions sharper, thereby providing evidence that identity codas function as symbolic markers of clan identity. Our study provides quantitative evidence of arbitrary traits, resembling human ethnic markers, conveying cultural identity outside of humans, and highlights remarkable similarities in the distributions of human ethnolinguistic groups and sperm whale clans.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere2201692119
Number of pages8
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number37
Early online date8 Sept 2022
Publication statusPublished - 13 Sept 2022


  • Culture
  • Symbolic markers
  • Bioacoustics
  • Distribution
  • Sperm whales


Dive into the research topics of 'Evidence from sperm whale clans of symbolic marking in non-human cultures'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this