Sperm whales learned to dodge harpoons and taught the skills to others


Sperm whales taught each other to avoid harpoons after it began hunting them 200 years ago, according to a new study.

Released by the Royal Society on Wednesday, the research was based on the newly digitized logbooks of American whalers, which recorded details of their expeditions in the North Pacific during the 19th century, such as the number of whales sighted or harpooned.

Although they were in high demand for their whale bone, ivory and blubber and nearly 80,000 ‘travel days’ were recorded, there were only 2,405 successful whale sightings, a 3 percent success rate.

The study authors, cetacean researchers, Professor Hal Whitehead and Dr. Luke Rendell, as well as data scientist Dr. Tim D Smith, also found that the hit rate of the whalers’ harpoons was reduced by a 58 percent in less than two and a half years after Primero began hunting in the region.

In Halifax, Canada, Professor Whitehead of Dalhousie University said The Owen Sun Sound Times: “That was very remarkable. I thought there might be a fall, but not so much and not so fast.

“It’s generally expected to increase as they discover things and they become more successful. This is typically our exploitation of wildlife. We become more efficient as we learn how to do it.”

The study concluded that the sperm whales had learned how they were being killed, shared this information with their herd, and changed their behavior accordingly, showing “cultural evolution.”

The species live with their children in female-only packs or groups, allowing them to form close bonds and share tips to evade hunters.

The hunters recognized that the sperm whales had developed tactics to evade them. Rather than forming defensive squares used to fight their natural predators, the killer whale, the sperm whales, understood that swimming against the wind would allow them to outrun the hunters’ ships driven by the wind.

However, the advent of steam power and grenade harpoons in the later years of the 19th century meant that even the cunning sperm whale was doomed to mass slaughter.

“This was a cultural evolution, too fast for genetic evolution,” says Whitehead.

Sperm whales have the largest brains of any animal on the planet, and the researchers noted that if they were able to adapt 200 years ago, they could probably also face the challenges of the ocean today.

This article was originally published by Business Insider.

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