A ‘groundbreaking’ study recently revealed that beluga whales, just like humans, branch outside their relatives when they socialise. The research using molecular genetic techniques and field studies revealed the complex relationship among beluga whales that spans ten locations across the Arctic from Alaska to Canada and Russia to Norway. As per the study, the gregarious whales are predominantly with either non-family members or distant relatives.
The study, led by Florida Atlantic University’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute and published in Scientific Reports, is the first to analyse the relation between group behaviours, group type, group dynamics and the kinship in beluga whales. The biologists said that the beluga whales not only regularly interact with close kin, including close maternal kin, they also frequently associate with more distantly related and unrelated individuals.
While researchers previously believed that the beluga whales usually bond around their maternal lineages, the recent study revealed the evolutionary explanation for group living and cooperation in the animals, which expand beyond strict inclusive fitness arguments to include their evolutionary mechanisms. As per the research, the scientists found that the Belugas most likely form multi-scale societies from mother-calf dyads to entire communities. The study further explained that beluga communities have similarities to human societies where social-networks, support structures, cooperation and cultures involve interactions between kin and non-kin.
Greg O'Corry-Crowe, Ph.D., lead author and a research professor at FAU's Harbor Branch, said, “This research will improve our understanding of why some species are social, how individuals learn from group members and how animal cultures emerge”.
He further added, “It also has implications for traditional explanations based on matrilineal care for a very rare life-history trait in nature, menopause, which has only been documented in a handful of mammals, including beluga whales and humans”.
The biologists found that belugas formed a limited number of group types, from mother-calf dyads to adult male groups, and from mixed-age groups to large herds. Further, the researchers said that these same group types were consistently observed across population and habitats. They also added that certain behaviours were associated with group type, and group membership was found to often be dynamic.
Crowe noted that unlike killer and pilot whales, and like some human societies, beluga whales don't solely or even primarily interact and associate with close kin. The beluga whales form communities of individuals of all ages and both sexes that regularly number in the hundreds and possibly the thousands. Furthermore, the biologists believe that because of their highly developed vocal communication, the beluga whales are able to remain in regular acoustic contact with close relatives even when not in association together.