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Are whales the most democratic society on Earth?

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A fascinating new study has found that sperm whales, like humans, can be indecisive, insular, and diplomatic. They even babysit each other, have cultural differences, and make democratic decisions.

Throughout the study, the authors compared these whale societies with the evolution of human cultures throughout time. “[W]hile the two species and their societies are very different, the existence of very large-scale social structures in both sperm whales and humans supports some primary drivers of the phenomenon that are common to both species (such as cognition, cooperation, culture and mobility) and contraindicates others (e.g. tool-making and syntactic language),” the authors wrote. 

Is it possible that sperm whales could also engage in tourism, visiting other clans for the sake of getting to know a different culture? While the study doesn’t cover that specifically, and noted that whales typically don’t make friends from other clans, they do experience cultural turnover. The authors of the study took a hiatus from observing the whale clans for 12 years between 2000 and 2012, and when they returned, they found that two different clans inhabited the space they had been studying. They likened this to leaving a city and returning many years later to discover different dominant languages.

This was perhaps comparable to returning to Montreal after a 14-year absence, finding it was still largely bilingual, but now Spanish and Urdu had taken over from English and French!” they wrote. “We do not know what happened to the original Galápagos occupants.

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