Simon Barnes

Why whales sing: it’s a question of culture

Animals are more human than we’d like to admit


A few years ago I was sitting in Carl Safina’s yard on Long Island, drinking tea, occasionally patting a dog who was lying at my feet. Safina was talking about the magnanimity of wolves. A wolf in Yellowstone National Park, known as Twenty-One, never lost a fight, and unlike most wolves, never killed a vanquished opponent. Park rangers called him the perfect wolf.

‘When a human releases a vanquished opponent rather than killing them, in the eyes of onlookers the vanquished still loses status but the victor seems all the more impressive,’ Safina said. ‘Onlookers might feel it would be desirable to follow such a person, so strong yet inclined towards forbearance.’

Safina is not some woo-woo merchant, or a new-world mist-dweller. He does proper science. He is the first endowed professor for nature and humanity at Stony Brook University, New York, and he has just published Becoming Wild: How Animals Learn to Be Animals. It’s mostly about culture. No, not animals in human culture: culture in non-human animals.

Here’s an example: humpback whales all sing the same song, but only when they live in the same ocean; there are different songs for different oceans… and every year all the songs change. And a more homely one: blue tits learned to take cream from milk bottles left on doorsteps, and the knowledge swept across Britain. Now the milk and the bottles and the buying habits are all different and that aspect of culture is defunct.

Safina’s book is based around three extended visits to wildlife field projects, and takes us to startling depths of intimacy with sperm whales, scarlet macaws and chimpanzees. Sperm whales use different sequences of sounds to announce their identity to each other, as individuals and as members of a clan — yes, a bit like names. You can’t release a rescued macaw into the wild: each one needs education in the skills of being wild, skills they would normally learn from parents.

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