Evidence of Cultural Transmission in Humpback Whales

Science published a fascinating study in April 2013 suggesting that cultural transmission is responsible for the prevalence of “lobtail feeding” behavior in a group of humpback whales found in the Gulf of Maine.

First observed in 1980, lobtail feeding involves a variation of bubble feeding. In bubble feeding, whales blow bubbles around fish to get them to clump closer together, and then lunges upward through the densely-packed fish.

With lobtail feeding, the humpback whale first slaps his tail on the surface of the water several times before diving underneath the water and engaging in bubble feeding. One hypothesis is that the tail slaps discourage the fish from jumping out of the water.

Researchers Jenny Allen, Mason Weinrich, Will Hoppitt, and Luke Rendell examined different models to explain the spread of the lobtail feeding to 287 of 700 observed humpbacks in the Gulf of Maine since its initial observation in 1980:

We used network-based diffusion analysis to reveal the cultural spread of a naturally occurring foraging innovation, lobtail feeding, through a population of humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) over a period of 27 years. Support for models with a social transmission component was 6 to 23 orders of magnitude greater than for models without. The spatial and temporal distribution of sand lance, a prey species, was also important in predicting the rate of acquisition. Our results, coupled with existing knowledge about song traditions, show that this species can maintain multiple independently evolving traditions in its populations. These insights strengthen the case that cetaceans represent a peak in the evolution of nonhuman culture, independent of the primate lineage.

Feds Hold Hearing on Makah Whale Hunt in Seattle

On October 11, the National Marine Fisheries Service held its third public comment session in Seattle, Washington, to hear opinions about the request by the Makah tribe to once again begin harvesting small numbers of whales.

The Makah killed their first whale in 70 years in 1999, but subsequently the Ninth Circuit Court ruled it needed a formal exemption from the Marine Mammal Protection Act. The Makah have filed for such an exemption, and the NMFS has held public comment sessions as part of that process.

More than 100 people showed up for the session, most of the opposed to resumption of even small scale whaling. Animal rights activist Carol Janes, for example, told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer,

I travel a lot for my work, and it means something when I say I’m from Seattle. [People] know about Mount St. Helens and the Mariners. I don’t want that meaning to change to: ‘That’s the place where they kill whales.’

The Humane Society of the United States’ Kitty Block told the Seattle Times,

We are worried about the precedent this would set. This law has saved millions and millions of animal lives.

We don’t want to come across as anti-tribal. And I am not denying their treaty right. But what does this do to our marine-mammal protection? And it is not just conservation; it is a humane issue. There is no humane way to kill a whale.

. . .

We have developed relationships with these animals [through whale watching tours]. It’s like a bait-and-switch: We go out there to see them — I’ve seen footage where people are leaning over and touching them — and now they are leaning over with a harpoon. It breaks a trust relationship.

Makah and Native American activists appealed to their long history of hunting whales, and the treaty they signed with the U.S. government guaranteeing the tribe the right to hunt whales (the tribe voluntarily refrained from hunting whales for decades after commercial whale hunting caused a drastic decline in the number of whales).

David Sones, vice chairman of the Makah Tribal Council, told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer,

The animal rights groups would rather just see our culture disappear and that’s their right. But we really believe that we will get this waiver.

Bob Anderson, director of the Center for Native American Law at the University of Washington, noted that the current Makah predicament is a largely result of the tribe electing to work with federal officials in the mid-1990s instead of going its own way. Anderson told the Seattle Times

If they had gone out and just gone whaling, that would be allowed. By doing something they didn’t have to do, they triggered this federal action, and that resulted in the 9th Circuit ruling. Now the Makah are bound.

A final decision on the resumption of whaling by the Makah is likely years away, as once the National Marine Fisheries Service makes its decision on whether or not to grant a waiver that decision will be litigated for years regardless of which side the Fisheries Service comes down on.


Hearing shows Makahs, public divided over whaling rights. Claudia Rowe, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, October 12, 2005.

Makah Tribe seeks federal waiver to let it once again hunt for whale. Lynda Mapes, Seattle Times, October 11, 2005.

Third Makah whaling hearing draws 120 in Seattle. Jim Casey, Peninsula Daily News, October 12, 2005.

Whaling Shock — Japan Paid Solomon Islands for IWC Vote

Former Solomon Islands whaling officials revealed the biggest non-secret about the annual International Whaling Commission meetings — Japan is paying some countries to vote to overturn the moratorium on commercial whaling.

Former Solomon Islands IWC Commissioner Albert Wata told ABC’s Four Corners,

Yes, the Japanese pay the government subscriptions. They support the delegations tot the meetings in terms of meeting air fares and per diem.

Solomon Islands Fisheries Minister Nelson Kile told the program that Japan paid the Solomons membership fees in the IWC,

Yes they do (pay the fees). I’m not really sure but probably for 10 years I think.

So far, though, Japan’s efforts have yet to pay off. Its efforts to overturn the moratorium again failed earlier this year at the 2005 meeting of the IWC.


Japan ‘brought Solomons whaling votes’. Associated Press, July 18, 2005.

Japan Reportedly Set to Expand Number of Whales Species It Hunts for ‘Scientific’ Purposes

In April, the Japanese press claimed that along with plans to increase the number of minke whales it kills annually, it plans to begin taking humpback and fin whales, species which it has not hunted since the International Whaling Commission’s moratorium on commercial whale hunting went into effect in 1986.

Along with minke whales, Japan currently hunts sei whales, sperm whales and Bryde’s whales as part of a limited scientific research hunting it is allowed to cull without being in violation of the commercial hunting moratorium.

According to Kyodo news agency, Japan will submit a whaling plan to the IWC ahead of its meeting this summer in which it outlines plans to almost double its current take of 440 minke whales, as well as add around 10 humpback and 10 fin whales.

An unidentified Japan Fisheries Agency official would not comment on the veracity of the report, but did tell Reuters,

However, it has been recorded that the populations of the humpback and fin whales in Antarctica are increasing. Nobody disputes this.

. . .

We always maintain that we will discuss these things scientifically, but with whales, it quickly grows emotional.

This is clearly a ploy on the part of Japan to ratchet up the rhetoric in favor of eliminating the commercial moratorium on whaling ahead of the IWC’s next meeting. Currently the moratorium is hanging on by a thread, barely surviving recent efforts by Japan and Norway to return to regulated commercial hunting of whales.


Reports: Japan to Expand Whale Hunt to New Species. Elaine Lies, Reuters, April 12, 2005.

New Zealand Whaling Commissioner — Whaling Moratorium Likely to Be Rescinded Soon

New Zealand’s representative to the International Whaling Commission, Sir Geoffrey Palmer, gave a speech in March in which he predicted that the moratorium on commercial whaling is likely to be reversed sometime in the next few years.

In an interview on New Zealand Radio, Palmer didn’t really say anything that hasn’t become obvious over the past few years. Those nations that want to re-start whaling have done an excellent job of recruiting other pro-whaling countries to join (often providing said countries with economic incentives to side with the pro-whaling forces). As Palmer notes,

They [IWC nations] adopted a moratorium on commercial whaling in 1982 and it came into force in 1986. Since that time, most New Zealanders, and I think many people around the world, have thought, well, there are not going to be anymore whales killed by commercial whaling. That position is now under threat. There is going on in the International Whaling Commission, a concerted effort to come up with a plan to allow commercial whaling to resume. It is going to be very, very difficult indeed. There are meetings going on. There is one in Copenhagen at the end of the month that I am going to. There is another is Korea in the middle of June which will be a very important meeting to determine where this effort is going.

There are a number of nations who have joined the International Whaling Commission in recent times who are in favor of a resumption of commercial whaling. For the first time, the majority is under threat. That is to say, the majority of the nations who belong to the International Whaling Commission do not want a resumption of commercial whaling, and that majority looks to be under threat. On my calculations, it seems that those who favor whaling now may have a majority of about two. Now of course to bring about a resumption of commercial whaling, you need a majority of 75 percent. But having a simple majority will change the whole philosophical approachÂ…

Palmer also noted that the IWC currently has almost no enforcement ability,

Enforcement by the Commission in relation to scientific whaling is impossible because of the provisions of the Treaty. But the enforcement mechanisms of the Treaty in relation to the rest of the activities of the Commission are also exceedingly weak as you state. They are weak because there is no effective way of actually enforcing the provisions of this Convention to see they are complied with.

The only thing keeping Japan and other countries from openly restarting commercial whaling today is the public relations hit they would take for breaching the moratorium. That lack of enforcement is going to be a major problem if and when commercial whaling resumes and it comes time to set enforceable quota limits.


Whaling moratorium likely to be dumped, New Zealand official warns. Associated Press, March 15, 2005.

Linda Clark Interview with Sir Geoffrey Palmer. March 16, 2005.