Whaler logbooks from the North Pacific over the past 200 years indicate an astounding trend in whale hunting. An analysis of the documentation shows that the rate at which whalers successfully hunted the whales decreased by 58% in the first two and a half years after they entered those regions of the ocean.
Such a drop in the hunters' success rate points to a drastic change in the behavior of sperm whales. If evolution takes generations to change a species, how did these marine mammals manage to adapt so quickly?
Data from this study, published by the Royal Society, seems to show that the whales learned from shared experiences how to avoid whalers and their ships.
Whalers would search the seas for whales and at any sighting would throw harpoons at them, hoping to strike a few. They would drag the hit whales back to their boats after a "hunt" that could last for hours.
It is unlikely that whalers lost their talent or that they first caught the vulnerable animals. With increasing technology and the fact that there are always vulnerable animals within a population, the drastic numbers do not add up to support these two hypotheses. However, the theory that these sperm whales learned from their history is soundly supported by the data.
Whales have echolocation capabilities that travel miles underwater. Through these clicks and vibrations, whales under attack can potentially communicate with further pods and warn them of the danger that awaits with whaler ships.
Additionally, whales that survived attacks could teach the more innocent of the pod how to avoid whalers should the group encounter another ship.
Nicola Hodgins, a researcher at Whale & Dolphin Conservation, thinks this study shows the social and cultural learning capabilities of marine mammals.
She summed up the two methods that allowed the species to better survive the whaler harpoons:
“There’s certainly an element of watch-and-learn in these animals: watching their parents and peers and then mimicking that behavior, as well as acoustic communication.”
She continued, “We know that whales and dolphins are incredibly intelligent and must have complex social lives. This fascinating research not only highlights that this happens, but hopefully means we can in turn protect them better.”