Sperm whales outwitted 19th-century whalers by sharing evasive tactics
A pod of sperm whales swims off the coast of the Portuguese island of São Miguel.
(Image credit: Shutterstock)
Catching a sperm whale during the 19th century was much harder than even Moby d*ck showed it to be. That's because sperm whales weren't just capable of learning the best ways to evade the whalers' ships, they could quickly share this information with other whales, too, according to a study of whale-hunting records.
By analyzing newly-digitized logbooks kept by whalers during their hunting voyages in the North Pacific, the researchers found that the strike rates of the hunters upon their targets declined by 58% in just a few years. And it wasn't because the whalers had gotten worse at landing their harpoons — the mammals had learned from their fellow whales' fatal encounters with humans, and they weren't going to repeat them, the researchers explained.
"At first, the whales reacted to the new threat of human hunters in exactly the same way as they would to the killer whale, which was their only predator at this time," study lead author Hal Whitehead, a professor of biology at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, told Live Science. "[The sperm whales] all gathered together on the surface, put the baby in the middle, and tried to defend by biting or slapping their tails down. But when it comes to fending off Captain Ahab that's the very worst thing they could do, they made themselves a very large target."
The whales seem to have learned from their mistakes, and the ones that survived quickly adapted — instead of resorting to old tactics, the whalers wrote in their logbooks, the sperm whales instead chose new ones, swimming fast upwind away from the whalers' wind-powered vessels.
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