Brains & culture
The heads of sperm whales returned to the news on April 7, 2016, long after they were last hunted for spermaceti, the oily substance that was once burned as the leading source of artificial light.
“It took Herman Melville 135 chapters to get to the part in his 1851 classic Moby Dick,” wrote Karin Brulliard of the Washington Post on April 7, 2016, “when the sperm whale and the peg-legged Captain Ahab do battle. No spoiler here: Moby Dick wins, smashing his enormous head into Ahab’s ship, the Pequod, and sinking it.”
Could Moby Dick have done it?
Moby Dick, Brulliard explained, “was inspired in part by real-life stories of a sperm whales accused of downing 19th-century whaling ships, including the Nantucket ship Essex in 1820. But it took 165 years for an international team of scientists,” Brulliard continued, “to finally probe this burning question: Could a sperm whale actually use its massive noggin as a battering ram to down a whaling ship five times the animal’s size?
“The short answer: It probably could — and live to tell the tale,” according to recent research by evolutionary morphologist Olga Panagiotopoulou, of the University of Queensland, Australia.
The spermaceti-filled heads of sperm whales had in Melville’s time already been aggressively hunted for more than a century.
Recalled Patty Jo Rice in the summer 1998 edition of Historic Nantucket, “The art of manufacturing candles from the headmatter of sperm whales began in America around 1748. It is generally agreed that Jacob Rodriques Rivera, a Sephardic Jew living in Newport, Rhode Island, introduced the process after immigrating either directly or indirectly from Portugal.”
The art and science of studying the head contents of sperm whales as something other than battering rams and/or the raw material for industrial processes, however, has a much shorter history––even though sperm whales have long been recognized for having the largest brains of any known species, living or extinct.
Formal scientific recognition that different families of sperm whales might have cultural differences comparable to those found among humans appears to have begun with an 18-year study led by Mauricio Cantor, a Ph.D. candidate at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and renowned Dalhousie University whale biologist Hal Whitehead. Cantor and Whitehead reported their findings in the September 8, 2015 edition of the journal Nature Communications.
Following sperm whales swimming off the Galapagos Islands in the eastern Pacific, Cantor and Whitehead found that two frequently observed sperm whale clans, who shared the same waters, used distinctly different click patterns in signaling to each other.
“These codas sound like Morse code: patterns of three to 12 or 15 clicks that vary in rhythm and tempo,” Cantor told BBC News. “In one clan we call the ‘regular clan,’ we heard regularly spaced clicks, but in another vocal clan that we call the ‘plus-ones,’ the coda types they make have an extended pause at the end, before the last click.”
Added Whitehead, “They [the two sperm whale clans] behave differently; they move around differently; they babysit their babies differently. And so while a family unit from the regular clan will get together with another family unit from the same clan, sometimes for days––and the same for the plus-ones––we’ve never seen a regular unit associate with a plus-one unit.”
The click codas are learned behavior, passed from adult sperm whales to their young.
“Learning how to communicate can split individuals into cultural groups,” said Cantor. “This is not to suggest that whale culture equals the diverse, symbolic and cumulative cultures of humans. But it is still fascinating that a society of completely different animals, living in a completely different environment, can have striking similarities with our own.”
Victor B. Scheffer
None of this would have surprised Victor B. Scheffer, whose 1969 opus The Year of the Whale, a faintly fictionalized account of the first year in the life of a sperm whale, contributed mightily to building international momentum to “save the whales.”
Even the United States at the time still had a commercial whaling fleet, albeit soon to be permanently retired.
Preceding the formation of Greenpeace by about a year, and the formation of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society by eight years, The Year of the Whale most likely helped to inspire the then-young Paul Watson to help found both organizations.
Yet The Year of the Whale is today scarcely remembered, despite the acclaim it received on publication, including the Burroughs Medal for the year’s best book about natural history.
Nor is Scheffer himself much remembered, though he was already an eminent marine biologist long before writing The Year of the Whale, was a cofounder of the Washington state chapter of The Nature Conservancy, went on to publish 14 books in all, and died on September 20, 2011, at age 104.
The context of public sympathy for whales today, and indeed for most of the last 30 years of Scheffer’s life, would have been unimaginable to him in 1969, when he anticipated that many of the species familiar to him would by now be extinct.
Leonard Everett Fisher
Addressing an audience who had yet to develop any notion of whales as magical, mystical, or even particularly attractive and intelligent cohabitants of the planet, The Year of the Whale nonetheless anticipated the New Age view of whales with illustrations by Leonard Everett Fisher, depicting the sperm whale mother and child in space beneath the signs of the zodiac.
Fisher, now 91, has not only illustrated more than 250 children’s books since 1955, but in The Year of the Whale created a whole new art theme and genre, carried over into jazz in 1991 by Béla Fleck and the Flecktones’ second album, Flight of the Cosmic Hippo.
Scheffer’s frequently lyrical descriptions of the whales likewise anticipated the way that most people who write about whales now write.
Yet Scheffer was also a hardnosed U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist, in an era when anthropomorphism was considered the worst of sins in wildlife observers, when every hint that other creatures might think or emote at all as we do was suspect.
Scheffer therefore harshly yanked himself and his readers back to the realities of those times with extended textual notes––chapters in themselves––which matter-of-factly recount such activities as dissecting fetuses begged from commercial whalers, hiding any trace of the moral revulsion he must have felt.
Scheffer was an objective, thoroughly scientific writer. Yet only keen concern for whales, understood as suffering, struggling, often admirable and lovable individuals, could have impelled him to produce The Year of the Whale.
Scheffer not only exposed the ecological abuse of commercial whaling but also challenged the way humans had thought of whales since Biblical times.
Scheffer never became as popular as the late Farley Mowat, whose Never Cry Wolf was also based upon scientific observations recorded on behalf of an unsympathetic government, and whose 1981 exposé A Whale For The Killing also helped to change the moral basis of our relationship to other species.
Scheffer did, however, make a comparable contribution.