Sperm whales have learned to attack whalers, crushing boats with their heads


19th-century sperm whales taught themselves to attack whalers by crushing boats with their heads, scientists have found.

Hal Whitehead, a research professor in the Department of Biology at Dalhousie University, made the discovery while digging through logbooks kept by whalers in the early 1800s.

Whaling, which refers to the hunting and killing of whales, was a thriving industry in 19th century America. Ships departed from New England ports and traveled around the world, catching and killing sea mammals to make whale oil.

The oil, derived from whale blubber, was used for lighting and lubricating purposes. Even the bones of a whale would be used to make a wide variety of products such as children’s toys and corsets.

Sailors slaughtered whales with harpoons attached to a heavy rope. The dead whales would then be tethered and stowed on the ship. Ashore, the whale’s skin and blubber were peeled into long strips and boiled to make oil.

However, one particular group of whalers sailing the North Pacific in the 1820s began to have trouble with sperm whales, according to Whitehead, because their harpoons weren’t taking down the whales as effectively. This piqued Whitehead’s interest.

The logbooks included anecdotes and descriptions of how the whales began to evade harpoons a few years after the sailors were there.

Whitehead said Newsweek“What this strongly suggests is that the whales changed their behavior very quickly, within two or three years of their encounter with the whalers. They behaved very differently.”

To protect themselves against predators, such as killer whales, sperm whales usually gather in a large group, forming a tight circle of defense. But it didn’t work against the man, as he was a perfect target. And so they changed their strategy, Whitehead said.

A file photo shows a sperm whale pod. Research found that they communicated with each other and learned new protective techniques.
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Within just a few years, when attacked by sailors, the whales began to swim rapidly against the wind and dive deep out of reach. Whitehead found that they even started attacking the whalers right in their boats, crushing them with their huge heads. There was only one explanation for this: the whales were talking to and learning from each other, according to Whitehead.

“When the whales would dive deep and come up in a very different place, it really unsettled the whalers. Because the whalers were waiting for the whale to come to the surface, but it would come up miles away. whale had escaped,” Whitehead said.

“They have big jaws and big teeth, and the whaleboats were little floating things so they could crush them and sometimes they did. The way they defended themselves is very different from the way they are protected from other predators.”

Whitehead said a single encounter with the whalers gave them enough information to quickly transmit across large areas of the North Pacific.

“They’re very dependent on the information they learn from each other, and what they learn changes their behavior, and that’s whale culture. It’s the same as how we learn things from parents. or teachers,” Whitehead said.

Sperm whales communicate with each other through sounds and “clicking” patterns, Whitehead said.

“These clicks are the loudest sound made by any animal. Sperm whales can hear each other and they can probably identify from their sounds too. In that sense, they know where everyone is and what they do,” he said.


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