A recent study of 19th-century whalers’ logbooks shows that sperm whales rapidly learned new ways to avoid their predators’ harpoons. And that’s not all these clever marine mammals did. Sperm whales weren’t just capable of learning the best ways to evade the whalers’ ships, they could quickly share this information with other whales. As a result, strike rates of the hunters upon their targets declined by 58% in just a few years!
When whalers first came on the scene, at first the sperm whales reacted to the new predator threat in the same way they reacted to other predator threats like killer whales. This tactic was a mistake, however, because it did not work against human predators. But the whales seemed to have quickly learned from their mistakes. Instead of resorting to old tactics, the sperm whales then developed new ones, swimming fast upwind away from the whalers’ wind-powered vessels.
It appears these clever tactics developed by individual whales soon spread across the whale community, with whales learning successful getaway techniques from each other. Soon, even individuals that had never been attacked before learned to follow the lead of those who had. The whales communicated with and learned from each other rapidly, and the lessons were soon integrated into their wider culture across the region.
How was this possible? It turns out that sperm whales are excellent information sharers: Their highly observant, communicative nature, and the fact that each family unit only stays in larger groups for a few days at a time, means they can transmit information fast. As previous studies have shown, that information could be news on new ways to hunt, new songs to sing or even new threats and how to best respond to those threats.
Journal reference: Whitehead, H., Smith, T.D. & Renell, L. Adaptation of sperm whales to open-boat whalers: rapid social learning on a large scale? The Royal Society Journal, 17 March 2021. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1098/rsbl.2021.0030, Summary