Whales gather in different groups, distinguished by their customs and culture, suggesting that their social organization is very similar to that of humans. This insight comes from a study led by Hal Whitehead, a whale scientist at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada, published in the Royal Society Open Science journal. Using underwater microphones and drone surveys, Whitehead examined the sounds emitted by the animals and their feeding habits, discovering that they organized into groups of up to about 20,000 individuals. These frequencies, resembling human dialects, allowed Whitehead and his colleagues to identify the existence of seven groups in the Pacific Ocean, totaling 300,000 whales. “This is a huge number for culturally defined entities outside of modern human ethnolinguistic groups,” said Whitehead.

“Social groups could meet, but they never intersected,” Whitehead added. “Their sense of identity appeared, in human terms, almost tribal, recognizing and maintaining their differences while belonging to the same species,” explained Whitehead. Whales, present in oceans worldwide, have the largest brains on the planet. These animals can reach up to 15 meters in length, weigh up to 45 tons, and can dive for two hours in search of food, especially squid. Whitehead noted that the groups seemed to be composed almost entirely of females. Males visited females occasionally and for a few hours at a time. “Their only significant transfer is that of sperm,” said Whitehead.

“A group of selected females took care of the young, while the mothers dived for food,” Whitehead continued. While emphasizing how whales are different from humans, the study suggests intriguing correspondences. It revealed that whale societies seem to use consensus rather than top-down leadership to reach common decisions. With thousands of animals traveling simultaneously, searching for rapidly evolving food sources, and constantly alert to predators like killer whales preying on whale calves, Whitehead reported seeing whales take an hour or more to make a 90-degree turn as they tried to agree on where to go.

“The democracy of whales was a slow and messy affair, just like ours,” observed Whitehead.

“The study of the evolution of these large populations can provide clues about human social evolution on a larger scale, with very few rivals,” Whitehead continued. The study suggests that there might be evidence of how human activity has influenced whales. Whales were extensively hunted from the 18th to the 20th century. Only in the 20th century, 700,000 individuals were killed in Britain, Norway, the Netherlands, Russia, Japan, Canada, and Australia, among other nations. Until 1971, whale oil was also used in the automatic transmissions of most American cars. The populations have rebounded since the 1982 moratorium on the killing of large whales. However, since whales can live up to 80 years, it is possible that individuals retain traumatic memories of 20th-century hunting.

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