National Geographic‘s Ed Yong reports on some amazing research findings from the Galapagos, examining the culture of the sperm whales of the area. This knowledge carries with it some notable implications: Is what happened to the Galapagos’ prior population of sperm whales a form of genocide?
Since 1985, Hal Whitehead had been leading a team to the Galápagos Islands to search for sperm whales, which gather there in the thousands. The researchers tracked the animals with underwater microphones, day and night, for two to four weeks.
Their recordings revealed that the whales belonged to two distinct vocal clans—large groups that each call using their own dialect. The Regular clan makes a train of regularly spaced clicks, while the Plus-One clan leaves a short pause before their last click. The two clans share both genes and oceans—they are distinct only in their vocal culture.
In the 1990s, for some reason, the whales started to vanish. By 2000, the whales had completely gone, and Whitehead ceased his annual expeditions.
Then, in 2011, a colleague in the Galápagos told the team that the sperm whales had apparently returned. Whitehead’s team, including Mauricio Cantor, Shane Gero, and Luke Rendell, went back in 2013 to listen for themselves.
They did, indeed, find sperm whales, sighting more than 4,400 individuals across two years. But none of these were from either the Regular or Plus-One clan, which were around in the 1980s. Instead, they belonged to two different groups that were heard elsewhere in the Pacific but were previously rare or absent around the Galápagos: the Short clan, which makes a brief train of clicks, and the Four-Plus clan, whose calls have a base of four regular clicks.