‘Moby click’: whales taught each other to avoid harpoons

Experts say sperm whales shared behaviours to outmanoeuvre 19th-century hunters

A mother sperm whale with its calf
A mother sperm whale with its calf
(Image credit: Gabriel Barathieu/Flickr)

Sperm whales being hunted by whalers quickly adapted their behaviour and learned how to avoid harpoons, according to new research.

Experts in the UK, US and Canada made the discovery after studying digitised logbooks of American whaling exhibitions, published by The Soyal Society, that found that strike rates fell by an average of about 58% within a few years of the first arrivals of hunting ships.

The team believe that it is not “plausible that any decline in the seamen’s competence was behind their dwindling success”, The Times reports. Instead, the experts conclude that the whales “got the measure” of the hunters and “shared strategies to avoid their harpoons”.

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In the newly published paper on their findings, they write that whales “could probably coordinate behaviour across several kilometres by sending and responding to high-frequency ‘clicks’”.

Study co-author Dr Luke Rendell, from the University of St Andrews, said that the findings “suggest there is the capacity for social learning on a much larger scale than anticipated” among whales.

“To have had this effect that quickly, it needs to have spread through a large part of the population in a [short space of] time,” he added.

The research paper, published in the journal Biology Letters, says that 19th century whalers also believed that the mammals were learning to evade them, by “communicating danger within the social group, fleeing - especially upwind - or attacking the whalers”.

The experts “also highlighted that if the animals could adapt their behaviour to avoid threats” 200 years ago, “they could do the same in the 21st century, when our oceans are facing their biggest challenges”, says Sky News.

Sperm whales have the largest brain of any animal on the planet and have long been known to be highly intelligent. However, the new study reveals that the hunted whales “had the intelligence to know what was happening to them” when hunters returned after prolonged periods of absence, the broadcaster reports.

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