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Humpback Learnin’

April 29, 2013

Just one more data point in my broader theory that the more we study animals in general, and cetaceans in specific, the smarter we realize they are.

From NatGeo:

Whether it’s learning a new song, figuring out how to use tools to forage for food, or picking up the local customs, learning from others is an important part of life for many animals, including people.

The idea of a culture or traditions—behavior shared by an identifiable group and acquired through social learning—in cetaceans, a group including whales and dolphins, has been controversial.

But a new study finds strong evidence that a group of humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) in the Gulf of Maine (map) is sharing a newly observed feeding behavior via their social networks. (See related blog: “Sharks Have Social Networks, Learn From Friends.”)

That behavior, called lobtail feeding, was first recorded in one whale in the Gulf of Maine in 1980. Since then, 278 humpback whales—out of about 700 observed individuals that frequent the Stellwagen Bank (map) area—have employed the strategy, according to the study, published this week in the journal Science.

What’s surprising to me is not that humpbacks learn from each other. What’s surprising is that we continue to be surprised at all the complex thinking and learning non-human animals do. It’s a reflection of how strong our bias in favor of human exceptionalism is.

One interesting point is that lobtail feeding appears to be a form of adaptation to changes in prey availability:

Lobtail feeding is a variation on a technique called bubble-net feeding, which is used by humpbacks around the world.

In bubble-net feeding, a whale blows bubbles into a kind of net surrounding the prey, corralling them into dense schools. Then the whale lunges up through the school with its jaws wide open, scooping up mouthfuls of food. (Watch a video that shows humpbacks bubble-net feeding.)

In lobtail feeding, the humpback slaps the surface of the water one to four times with the underside of its tail before diving down and blowing the bubble net. Rendell speculates the slaps may keep its sand lance prey from jumping out of the water, away from the whale.

“The origin of this behavior was strongly associated with the collapse of herring stocks and a boom in sand lance stock,” said Rendell. So he and his team suggest that lobtail feeding came about when humpbacks switched from hunting herring to catching sand lances, a type of fish.

So it’s a good thing that humpbacks are smart enough to adapt their hunting strategies and learn from one another. Because humans will continue to impact the oceans and prey they depend on.

This humpback is no doubt glad we are so impressed, but probably wishes he would be left alone to dine in peace:

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