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Sperm whales, humans more alike than you might think: Dalhousie researcher

A female sperm whale is seen breaching the water off the Galapagos Islands, Ecuador. (Source: THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Mauricio Cantor) A female sperm whale is seen breaching the water off the Galapagos Islands, Ecuador. (Source: THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Mauricio Cantor)

A lot of things separate humans and sperm whales: oceans, languages, and body sizes, to name a few. But Dr. Hal Whitehead from Dalhousie University in Halifax prefers to focus on the things that connect people to the massive creatures of the deep.

“There are things we share with them, including large brains,” he said. “Another thing is that we’re both pretty mobile. They can swim thousands of kilometres. We cooperate a lot, we work with each other to raise children and sperm whales do the same.

“We learn a lot from each other, we have culture, all that information we process and use in a sensible way. Sperm whales do the same.”

Whitehead’s new paper in Royal Society Open Science explores the behaviour of sperm whales and their strong similarities with humans, particularly in how they form ethno-linguistic groups.

“Ethno-linguistic is what we think is a nation or people; it’s basically a group of people who have a set of things they do that don’t tend to be done by other people and they have a different language than other people,” Whitehead said. “I’ve been studying sperm whales for a while and we found they have these clans, they have a particular way of communicating with each other that other clans don’t. It sets up social divisions. We don’t find much like this in other animals.

“Sperm whales from one clan do not seem to associate with other sperm whales of different clans. They can be very large scale. We found one clan that went from Japan to Chile. Clans can have tens of thousands of members.”

Whitehead said the parallels between humans and sperm whales — such as their higher fat stores to help them in times of scarcity — can be used to better understand their positions in the world and how they affect each other.

“These animals with social structures are impacted by our actions in ways animals who act on instinct aren’t,” he said. “Potentially they can learn ways of dealing with the threats we have given them. A couple of years ago, I did a study that whales were learning from each other how to best evade the whalers.”

Whitehead said his interest in sperm whales grew out of his fascination with deep waters and the secrets contained within.

“I like sailing my ships far from shore and sperm whales are deep water animals and they appeal to me that way,” he said. “There’s so much intriguing about them.

“The animal is full of extraordinary questions.”

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