[MARMAM] New publication: Sperm whale clans and human societies

Hal Whitehead Hal.Whitehead at Dal.Ca
Thu Jan 11 04:41:38 PST 2024

The following paper has just been published:

Whitehead, H., 2024. Sperm whale clans and human societies. Royal Society Open Science

It is open access and available at:



Sperm whale society is structured into clans that are primarily distinguished by vocal dialects, which may be symbolic markers of clan identity. However, clans also differ in non-vocal behaviour. These distinctive behaviours, as well as clan membership itself, are learned socially, largely within matrilines. The clans can contain thousands of whales and span thousands of kilometres. Two or more clans typically use an area, but the whales only socialize with members of their own clan. In many respects the closest  arallel may be the ethno-linguistic groups of humans. Patterns and processes of human prehistory that may be instructive in studying sperm whale clans include: the extreme variability of human societies; no clear link between modes of resource acquisition and social structure; that patterns of vocalizations may not map well onto other behavioural distinctions; and that interacting societies may deliberately distinguish their behaviour (schismogenesis). Conversely, while the two species and their societies are very different, the existence of very large-scale social structures in both sperm whales and humans supports some primary drivers of the phenomenon that are common to both species (such as cognition, cooperation, culture and mobility) and contraindicates others (e.g. tool-making and syntactic language).

Hal Whitehead, Dalhousie University (hwhitehe at dal.ca)
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