The Surprising Similarities Between Whales and Primates

A whale biologist reports from the world’s biggest primatology conference.

This week, Chicago is hosting the largest gathering of primatologists ever—the joint meeting of the International Primatological Society and the American Society of Primatologists. It seems like every scientist who works with monkeys and apes is here, including Jane Goodall, the charismatic emblem of the field.

The days have been filled with detailed lectures about big ideas on topics ranging from bonding and cooperation among primates, to conservation of species and their habitats. The nights are for social events, where scientists make jokes that only get a laugh given the current company.

The problem is that I don't get many of the jokes. I'm not a primatologist, I'm a whale biologist. But whales and primates have a lot more in common than many people realize, and that's what brought me to Chicago this week.

Whale biologist Shane Gero. Image: The Dominica Sperm Whale Project

Over the last decade, I have led research on The Dominica Sperm Whale Project, a behavioural study of wild sperm whales. Through thousands of hours in the company of whales, I have come to know them as individuals, as brothers and sisters, as mothers and babysitters, and as a community of families living together in the Caribbean Sea. My work has lead to being able to recognize whales, whale families, and whale cultures by the sounds they use to communicate with each other. We now know that individual and cultural identity is important in sperm whale society. Unfortunately, some of these cultures are dying out.

But I am the outsider here in Chicago, a whale-out-of-water so to speak…surrounded by the world experts in primates, including lemurs, monkeys, and our closest relatives, the apes.

The study of whales and dolphins, or cetology, is kind of like primatology's wide-eyed younger brother. The 11 years I have spent with the whales pales in comparison to multi-decadal primate projects, many of which have followed individual families through generations. But, for one special session over the course of this seven-day conference, we came together to share our knowledge about the surprising similarities between whale and primate societies.

Eastern chimpanzees in Gombe Stream National Park, Tanzania. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Whales and apes live complex social lives, learn from each other, cooperate with one another, share food, pass on local traditions, defend their young, and communicate with complex vocal signals. There are some big differences, too. The ocean is big, deep, dark, and wet. So whales interact mostly by sounds when they can't see each other, and travel distances much larger than any of the protected areas in which primates are studied in the wild. (Some sperm whales have been known to range over thousands of kilometres through the ocean.)

Whale or dolphin research has focused on interactions across entire social networks, while primatologists have been able to observe at the level of the individual, studying social dynamics between specific apes or monkeys across long periods of time.

Read more: A New Sperm Whale 'Culture' Was Just Identified in the Caribbean

As a result, primatologists are years ahead of cetologists in their understanding of how mothers raise their babies, how they make decisions (both as individuals, and groups), how they resolve conflicts, the physiological, psychological, or neurological mechanisms driving their behaviour, as well as primates' abilities to recognize inequity and their concepts of fairness.

Strong primate societies are built on reconciliation after negative encounters. Primatologist Frans de Waal, who studies these animals' social intelligence, suggested in his lecture that chimpanzees commit five positive cooperative acts for every negative one, in order to maintain strong bonds. (As for whales, similar detailed work on conflict and cooperation at the individual level has yet to be done. But we do know they maintain bonds through "vocal grooming" by having duet-like conversations.)

Life, it seems, is about the quality of relationships we build with those around us‚ regardless of whether you grow up in the jungle, the ocean, or Chicago.

Image: Amanda Cotton/The Dominica Sperm Whale Project

The advances in the use of drones and wearable technology on the animals will greatly change the way we study both whales and primates, but perhaps the strongest common ground between primatologists and cetologists is the deep passion shared by both groups to protect the lives of the animals they work with. You cannot spend huge amounts of time with these animals without feeling a burden of responsibility to speak up for, and act, on their behalf.

During my time in Chicago among the primatologists it became clear to me that the take-home message from the jungle and the ocean is the same. These animals live sophisticated lives, not so unlike to our own. We stand to lose a great deal, if we don't act to protect them.

Shane Gero is a Research Fellow in the Marine Bioacoustics Lab in the Department of Zoophysiology at Aarhus University in Denmark. In 2005, Shane founded The Dominica Sperm Whale Project, a long-term study on wild sperm whale social structure and communication. He tweets at @sgero and you can follow live tweets from when he is with the whales @DomWhale.