A new study has heightened scientists’ understanding of beluga families, but it’s also deepened the mystery of this animal’s intelligence – and culture.

“Using genetic fingerprinting over decades of time, we’ve actually managed to establish that, not only do whales come back to the same area year after year, decade after decade, (but) the same whales do and their relatives also do,” says Gregory O’Corry-Crowe, a lead writer of a research article published March 22 that suggested beluga whales have a “migratory culture.”

Researchers are suggesting beluga families may have their own “cultures” and share important information about migration routes. photo courtesy of Gregory O’Corry-Crowe

What “culture” means in this respect is that families are communicating among themselves and passing along knowledge of where they feed and breed, and that they either travel together to these places or meet up there.

Despite few natural barriers and overlapping migration routes, the groups of beluga whales that the researchers examined tended to stick with their own in the long run.

O’Corry-Crowe says this culture might be rooted in the whales’ childhoods. Beluga whale calves remain dependent on their mothers for two or more years, and thus travel with their mothers for multiple migration cycles.

“These whales likely formed lifelong associations with close kin, close relatives that was probably driven in large part by the critical need to navigate the challenges of a very difficult environment in order to get to certain key areas at certain times of the year,” he says.

There are various ways animals learn where they need to go, says O’Corry-Crowe: some have to figure it out themselves, and many get unlucky; some follow the crowd every year, and hope they picked the right crowd; and some, like the belugas, may watch and learn from their relatives who know what they’re doing, and then pass that long to their other kin.

O’Corry-Crowe thinks some of this information is likely conferred by watching-and-learning, but he noted that beluga whales also seem to communicate vocally.

“We know they have incredibly diverse vocal repertoires,” he says.

Despite their predilection for family, beluga whales aren’t antisocial. They spend almost all their time travelling around, groups splinter up and rejoin, and gatherings of thousands of beluga whales are commonly seen in coastal areas. And while it’s difficult to tell what constitutes territory in the three-dimensional underwater ecosystem, they haven’t been seen to get territorial with others.

“When you combine that flexible grouping pattern with what we’re learning about relationships – actual kinship – and how sophisticated their vocal communication abilities are, you can envision a situation where they’re capable of forming these very complex societies that don’t necessitate everybody being together all the time.”

A big take-away from this study is the question, which O’Corry-Crowe hopes will be examined in further years, of how having a culture will affect belugas’ adaptation to a changing Arctic: Will it mean they stay set in their ways, or will this culture be dynamic and actually help spread life-saving adaptations?
“Is culture a liberator? Or is it a captor?” he asks.

“Are they going to be held hostage to culture or is the ability to learn and acquire an incredibly large amount of information in an efficient way (going to help them)?”

O’Corry-Crowe is going to be back in Inuvik this week, and says that the partnerships U.S. researchers have made with the Canadian government, the GNWT and the Inuvialuit have helped get the research this far and will help bring it farther. Lois Harwood, with Fisheries and Oceans Canada in Yellowknife, helped write and research the article.

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