Cultures of Interspecies Cetacean Groups    

By Julie Gardella


The term “culture” has no single agreed-upon definition, colloquially or across academic disciplines; over time, its meaning has evolved, and new definitions have developed. In his essay, “Culture,” novelist and critic Raymond Williams provides a brief examination of the word. According to Williams, it has three overarching aspects, the first of which he writes is “a general process of intellectual, spiritual, and aesthetic development” (Williams 1985, 90). This definition refers to the idea that societies acquire culture as they develop intellectually. Secondly, Williams defines culture as “a particular way of life, whether of a people, a period, a group, or humanity in general” (90). This definition of culture can be similar to that of a “society” and refers to the particular ways that different groups communicate, coordinate, and interact. His final definition of culture “describes the works and practices of intellectual and artistic activity” (90). This definition is similar to the second as it is unique to each group, but it differs because it describes aspects of a society that are nonessential for survival and are more expressive than strictly practical. Culture, defined as a way of life, consists of many social norms agreed upon by members of the group that determine behavior and reflect a certain way of going about things. Connotations of sophistication associated with the term “culture” create a willingness to attribute it to species seen as relatively socially and intellectually similar to humans.

Traditionally, culture has been perceived as mostly human, but recently, as we better understand other animals’ social interactions, we have become more inclined to apply our concept of culture to other species. For example, false killer whales (Pseudorca crassidens) and bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) have been observed cooperatively feeding off the coast of New Zealand (Zaeschmar, Dwyer, Stockin 2013), and humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) and bottlenose dolphins have been recorded possibly engaging in play behavior in Hawaiian waters (Deakos 2010). Could any of Williams’ definitions of culture be applied to any of these interspecific interactions?

Cetaceans are mammals that live in complex social groups, much like humans. This makes humans able to identify and empathize with them far more easily than they do with species that they view as more alien. When, for example, a hippopotamus is observed allowing fish to clean its mouth and face, we do not immediately call this an interspecies culture because we are not willing to extend our concept of culture to creatures we see as so fundamentally different from our human selves (Wells 2014). Non-predator/prey interspecies interactions that benefit both parties are called “mutualism” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary Online, 2019), and are generally not considered culture. This interaction gives no indication that it was developed intellectually or consciously; the fish are simply feeding and the hippopotamuses are simply allowing themselves to be cleaned. On the other hand, the term “culture” can be applied to the observed false killer whales and bottlenose dolphins cooperatively hunting and to the humpback whales and bottlenose dolphins playing together because they appear to be conscious, coordinated, and social, rather than a simple behavior with an immediate and obvious benefit.

The false killer whales and bottlenose dolphins’ cooperative hunting exemplify Williams’s definition of culture as “a particular way of life of a group.” Scientists observed around 150 false killer whales and 150 bottlenose dolphins off the coast of New Zealand and approached the mixed-species subgroup to see them working together by using a “carouselling” technique to round up the fish and bubble bursts to condense them into a “bait ball” against the hull of the observers’ vessel. They were “taking turns to feed on individual fish” (Zaeschmar 2013, 556).

The phrase “taking turns” implies a conscious decision to eat one by one and indicates that the animals have a sense of fairness in the idea of a “turn,” and its use in an objective, observational report subtly illustrates the writers’ bias, when instead they could have said “one by one they fed on the fish.” In order to “take turns,” the animals would have to have concepts of themselves and of others, and recognize that there is a time when they must herd the fish while others eat and a time when others will herd while they eat. The authors’ use of “turn” means that they attribute to the false killer whales and bottlenose dolphins these concepts of “self,” “time to eat,” and “time to herd the fish,” and that their cooperation is intentional and social, which separates it from a mutualistic relationship like the hippopotamus and the fish. In this instance, if Morgan’s Canon applies—which states that we cannot attribute a behavior to higher intellectual faculty if the behavior can be interpreted to a simpler psychological reason (Karin-D’Arcy 2005)—feeding one by one evolved as an instinct because it was a favorable trait and not reflective of a conscious decision. If, however, the author’s attribution of a “turn” concept to the false killer whales and bottlenose dolphins is correct, it may represent a social norm within the group that all members intentionally abide by, and that can only exist within a culture. The false killer whales and bottlenose dolphins appear to share an understanding of when each individual can take a turn to feed and when each should wait. Because the complex technique they employed to herd the fish seems too sophisticated and cooperative to be simply instinctual, a conscious choice to adhere to the turn-taking social norm is a better explanation.

Observers continued in their report that both species maintained a degree of separation; conspecifics clustered in groups of five to eight individuals less than a body length apart, while maintaining two to three body lengths from heterospecifics (Zaeschmar 2013, 557). Use of Morgan’s Canon to explain their behavior probably underestimates the complexity of the reasons for their actions, and it is more likely that this subgroup species separation is another social norm recognized in this interspecies group that, in part, comprises its culture.

What does the social norm of separate, species-specific subgroups indicate about the individuals that comprise the interspecies subgroup? Individual members of both species tending to stay close to conspecifics while leaving more space between heterospecific animals seems to indicate that they recognize other individuals as like or different from themselves. In order to do this, each must not only be conscious of her own existence, but also have an idea of what she is. What though, is the nature of their comprehensions of their own species and others?

Philosophy professor and cognitive scientist Kristin Andrews uses the example of a dog named Fido burying a meaty bone in his human companion’s backyard and later returning to the same place to retrieve it. Fido’s behavior indicates his awareness of what he buried and where he buried it, but it is incorrect to say that Fido knows he buried a meaty bone in the backyard. He lacks knowledge of bones; bones make up a skeleton and provide a body’s structure and frame, and Fido almost certainly does not know this. He also almost certainly does not know the definition of a backyard; he lacks concepts of property, houses, and land ownership, all of which are needed to know what a backyard is (Andrews 2015, 86). Like dogs, neither dolphins nor false killer whales use human language, and therefore, it is inaccurate to state that they understand “bottlenose dolphin” or “false killer whale” in the way that humans do. However, they do appear to have their own concepts of the species they belong to and of another species that is similar enough to cooperate with them to pursue the same interests, but also can recognize members of that species as more different from themselves than conspecifics are. The animals’ use in these concepts create the social norm within their culture of maintaining more space between themselves and heterospecific individuals than conspecifics.

On two separate occasions, humpback whales and bottlenose dolphins have been observed exhibiting a behavior tentatively considered interspecies play. The first encounter occurred off the coast of Kauai:

The dolphins positioned themselves directly in front of one humpback still at the surface and appeared to surf the pressure wave created by the whale’s head as it swam…During the next two breaths by the same whale, each dolphin independently was seen lying across the whale’s rostrum as it surfaced, oriented perpendicular to the whale’s body. At 1430 h, the whale stopped and slowly raised its rostrum upward while lifting the well-marked dolphin out of the water. Once completely clear of the water, the dolphin remained arched, on its side, balanced over the end of the whale’s rostrum. The dolphin appeared to cooperate with no discernible effort to free itself or escape. When the whale was nearly vertical, with its eye nearly breaking the water surface, the dolphin slid down the dorsal side of the rostrum while swinging its flukes upward…ending when the dolphin entered the water tail first. (Deakos 2010, 122)

The second was observed on the northwest shore of Maui:

At 1742 h, a humpback whale calf was seen resting at the surface about 800 m offshore of Mala Wharf on the northwest side of the island of Maui, Hawaii… Within a few seconds, an adult bottlenose dolphin surfaced 15 m from the calf. The dolphin was positioned vertically with only its head and rostrum exposed above the water. At 1747 h, the humpback mother surfaced next to the calf about 5 m from the dolphin. The dolphin submerged and at 1748 h, it resurfaced while resting its ventral side on top of the mother’s rostrum. The calf submerged. At 1749 h, an escort humpback surfaced and took three breaths, and submerged 20 s later while the mother remained at the surface and lifted the dolphin out of the water with her rostrum. The dolphin was lifted a total of six times over the next 8.5 min…The last lift occurred at 1753 h, after which the dolphin moved away and was no longer seen near the humpbacks. (Deakos 2010, 122–123)

The Deakos paper explores three possible explanations for these cetaceans’ behavior. The first is that the interaction indicated aggression; however, this seems unlikely since neither dolphin made a discernable attempt to free itself or escape from the humpback whales. Second, the humpbacks could have been exhibiting epimeletic or succorant behavior. This also seems unlikely since the dolphins showed no signs of injury or distress, at least none visible to the human observers (125). However, the humpback mother was observed lifting the calf out of the water on her rostrum in a similar way after the dolphin left, so a nurturing behavior cannot be ruled out (126). However, a humpback calf weighs about four times as much as a dolphin, so it is unlikely that the mother whale would mistake the dolphin for a juvenile whale.

The most likely explanation for the observed behavior is that the animals were playing. “Play” behavior has no definitive, scientifically agreed upon definition, but the paper cites Burghardt’s criteria for play behavior, including being “voluntary, pleasurable or self-rewarding,” “different structurally or temporally from related serious behavior” and “initiated in relatively benign situations (i.e., when the animal is healthy and free from stress or hunger)” (Burghardt 2005). Since the dolphins did not appear to make any attempt to escape the interaction, the behavior is likely voluntary, and since it had no clear practical goal, it is likely done for pleasure and enjoyment rather than driven by a serious survival need. Furthermore, both species seemed willingly engaged in the interaction and indicated no signs of distress, meaning the behavior probably occurred in a situation where neither species felt threatened by anything external. Therefore, the interspecies interaction appears to fit Burghardt’s criteria for “play.”

In addition to fitting the criteria for play behavior, the interaction possibly even meets Williams’s criteria for culture. His third definition is “practices of intellectual and especially artistic activity” (Williams 1985, 90). This is the aspect of culture that goes beyond just differences in how groups go about daily life and meet their basic needs, and its presence indicates that the group in question has capacities and possibly even needs that are not related to physical well-being but are instead critical to intellectual and emotional quality of life. Playing, for example, is a part of culture not directly related to survival and instead indicates that the animals have aspects of their well-being that are more sophisticated than just their immediate physiological needs. While their behavior is not necessarily “art,” as Williams describes, it is a different form of personal self-expression that might fulfill a similar emotional need for frivolity or even joy that qualifies it as culture.

Williams’s definition also includes an intellectual aspect of culture. Therefore, if we consider humpback whales and bottlenose dolphins interacting to be a culture in the way Williams describes it, and we assume that the observed behavior was play, the conclusion is that Morgan’s Canon cannot be the best explanation for the behavior. In fact, if Morgan’s Canon applied to this particular interspecies culture, it would mean that the animals are not playing out of a conscious need for pleasurable social interaction, but rather because this behavior was favorable to physical survival. However, because the behavior occurred when the animal did not need to meet an immediate physiological need, it should be explained by a psychological one that prompts the conscious mutual decision of the whale and dolphin to play.

Social play seems the most likely explanation for the observed interspecies interaction. Humpback mothers have been observed playing with juvenile conspecifics, similarly lifting them out of the water on their rostrums, and according to Deakos’ description of social play, the bottlenose dolphins could be taking the role of proxy for juvenile humpbacks, despite their difference in size (125). Therefore, the lifting behavior is probably a ritual belonging to the humpback whales’ culture, and it is possible that the dolphins began to partake via social learning from the whales. This created a new, interspecies culture where members of both species intentionally engaged in a mutually enjoyable, psychologically beneficial interaction.

Culture exists within societies or groups and includes social norms and practices understood and agreed upon by those belonging to the culture. Culture is something that a group is not something a group has. A culture is a group that has intentional social and behavioral norms understood by members of the group.  Culture exists within groups where members have a conscious understanding of what is expected behavior. The group of false killer whales and bottlenose dolphins hunting off the coast of New Zealand is a culture because its members appeared to agree to feed one at a time and to know when it was his/her turn and when it was not. They also seemed to collectively understand how much space was appropriate to leave between oneself and a conspecific and a heterospecific animal. Similarly, the humpback whale and the dolphin both seemed to have a mutual understanding of what their play behavior would entail, and furthermore, it was a form of self-expression—possibly expressing joy, carefreeness, or maybe even affection. We will probably never know for sure. The meaning of the word “culture” has changed over time and evolved to have many different meanings across many different disciplines; it is now widely understood to apply to all human societies, and we are currently extending our understanding of its meaning to encompass animal groups as well.


Works Cited

Andrews, Kristen. 2015. The Animal Mind: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Animal Cognition. New York: Routledge.

Burghardt, G. M. 2005. The Genesis of Animal Play: Testing the Limits. Cambridge: The MIT Press.

Deakos, Mark H., et al. 2010. “Two Unusual Interactions Between A Bottlenose Dolphin (Tursiops Truncatus) And A Humpback Whale (Megaptera Novaeangliae) In Hawaiian Waters.” Aquatic Mammals 36 (2): 121–128.

Karin-D’Arcy, M. Rosalyn. 2005. “The Modern Role of Morgan’s Canon in Comparative Psychology.” The International Journal of Comparative Psychology 18 (3): 179–201.

Merriam-Webster Dictionary. 2019. “Mutualism.”

Wells, Christopher D. 2014. “Mutualism of the Month: Hippopotamus and Their Fish Partners.” Feed the Data Monster.

Williams, Raymond 1985. “Culture.” In Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society, 86–93. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Zaeschmar, Jochen R., Sarah L. Dwyer, and Karen A. Stockin. 2013. “Rare Observations of False Killer Whales (Pseudorca Crassidens) Cooperatively Feeding with Common Bottlenose Dolphins (Tursiops Truncatus) in the Hauraki Gulf, New Zealand.” Marine Mammal Science 29 (3): 555-562.


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