Whale social network reveals surprising allies

WaterFrame/Alamy

Whale social network reveals surprising allies

When you spend your days battling giant squid, it’s good to have friends you can rely on. New research from the Caribbean suggests that female sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus, pictured) swim with favored companions and form long-term family allegiances. Sperm whales raise their young in communal family groups of about a dozen related females, but mapping out the giant animals' social lives in much detail has been a challenge for scientists. The whales spend 60% of their lives hunting squid hundreds of meters below the waves, and researchers can watch them interact for only a few minutes at a time when they surface to breathe. But a new multiyear study has created the most detailed map yet of sperm whales’ social networks. Between 2005 and 2010, scientists followed nine whale families along the west coast of the Caribbean island of Dominica and mapped their social relationships by counting which females spent the most time together at the surface between dives. As expected, whales mostly preferred to relax with family members, but within families they played favorites, frequently swimming with the same sister, auntie, or aged granny, the researchers report online this week in Animal Behaviour. The network diagram also revealed three pairs of families that mingled frequently over the years to socialize and share babysitting duty. One of these pairs has been fraternizing since 1995, according to data from other researchers, suggesting that such allegiances can last more than a decade. These observations suggest sperm whale families may be similar to the matriarchal clans of elephants, which also form long-lasting family bonds, the researchers say. Further research may determine whether allied families are actually distant cousins and investigate whether whales use signature songs to find their best friends.

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