Whales can teach us a thing or two about friendships, social bonds and social distancing too
The phenomenon of friendship is universal. Friends, after all, are the family we choose. But what exactly makes these bonds not just pleasant but essential? And how do they affect our bodies and minds? In the book, Friendship: The Evolution, Biology and Extraordinary Power of Life’s Fundamental Bond, author and science journalist Lydia Denworth looks at the biological, psychological and evolutionary foundations of this important bond by drawing on research from both the human and animal kingdom.
Different animal species like fish, birds, amphibians, reptiles and even crustaceans connect and communicate with one another. One of the most sociable mammals, in fact, is the beluga whale, which lives in groups called pods, a cohesive social unit. Beluga whales live, hunt and migrate together in pods, ranging from a few individuals to hundreds of them.
A recent study by the Florida Atlantic University analysed the relationship between group behaviours, dynamics and kinship of beluga whales in 10 locations across the Arctic. The results show that not only do these mammals regularly interact with close kin, they also frequently associate with more distantly related and unrelated individuals. Their behaviour is influenced by human activity and has similarities to human societies, where social networks, support structures, cooperation and cultures involve interactions between kin and non-kin.
The researchers observed wild belugas in 10 locations across the Arctic with the help of partnerships with native communities and Gregory O’Corry-Crowe, professor at Florida Atlantic University’s Harbor Branch in Florida. He is also the lead study author. “Beluga whales exhibit a wide range of grouping patterns—from small groups of two to 10 individuals to large herds of 2,000 or more, from apparently single-sex and age-class pods to mixed-age and sex groupings, and from brief associations to multi-year affiliations,” O’Corry-Crowe said in the research article that was published in Nature Research, a leading multidisciplinary science journal.
The professor observed that the social groups comprised between two and 50 whales in close association, where physical contact between animals was common. In addition to this, the sophisticated series of vocal repertoires and acoustic systems suggested their skill of forming complex relationships and groups. “This new understanding of why individuals may form social groups, even with non-relatives, will hopefully promote new research on what constitutes species resilience and how species like the beluga whale can respond to emerging threats, including climate change,” said O’Corry-Crowe.
Beluga whales form an important link in the food chain and depend on sea ice for existence. The International Whaling Commission (IWC), headquartered in the United Kingdom, is in charge of regulating whaling and addressing the vast number of threats in oceans such as shipping, climate change and bycatch. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF), too, is pushing to make the IWC more effective in reducing these threats that go beyond whaling. Besides, WWF-Canada is working to help identify critical beluga whale habitats in the Arctic, St Lawrence Estuary and Gulf, while supporting Arctic beluga satellite research, as well as community-based projects monitoring beluga whale health to understand the impact of ocean noise on their population.
Most populations of beluga whale migrate. An article published by Donna Hauser, a research assistant professor at the International Arctic Research Center, University of Alaska Fairbanks, in The Circle magazine, produced by the WWF Global Arctic Programme, details how beluga whales travel and forage across the northern reaches of the Arctic. “Rising temperatures have meant later freezeups—and researchers have wondered whether this change is affecting the timing of belugas’ migrations: some delay their fall migration, or continue their usual patterns. We need to do more work to understand how beluga whales are responding to their changing environments. As with many Arctic marine mammals, we don’t know whether there has been a shift in the number of beluga whales in these populations, or whether there have been changes in their health and body conditions that might tell us something about the consequences of sea ice loss. So far, this research simply indicates that belugas’ responses to changing Arctic marine ecosystems can vary among different populations.”
Susanne Shultz, an evolutionary biologist at Manchester’s School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, linked the complexity of cetacean culture and behaviour to the size of their brains in a 2017 study published in Nature Ecology & Evolution. “As humans, our ability to socially interact and cultivate relationships has allowed us to colonise almost every ecosystem and environment on the planet. Whales and dolphins have exceptionally large and anatomically sophisticated brains and have created a similar marine-based culture. That means the apparent co-evolution of brains, social structure and behavioural richness of marine mammals provide a unique and striking parallel to the large brains and hyper-sociality of humans and other primates on land,” she said.