A recent study has revealed previously unknown beluga whale facts, specifically about their social behavior. Contrary to findings that beluga whales follow groupings along maternal lines, researchers found mixed networking with dynamic group membership. Using genomic data, the study published in Nature demonstrated that these mammals were not limited to grouping along maternal lines, and that they also socialized with their paternal family.
Oceanographic describes how researchers from Florida Atlantic University (FAU) gathered the information from beluga whales in ten sites spread across the Arctic in Alaska, Canada, Russia and Norway. They used a combination of field observation, mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) and multi-locus genotyping to determine how belugas gathered together and what relationships they shared.
What Influences Beluga Whales Social Behavior?
Beluga whales are social animals. As Science Daily notes, the FAU team is the first to investigate social networking in beluga whale populations spread across the Arctic. The study showed that not only do they form close maternal groupings similar to pilot and orca whales, but they also network through wider family links and also in larger unrelated groups. In this way, they’re a lot more like humans in that they enjoy being with broader groups of friends.
Common drivers of social networking in beluga whales and other cetaceans include reproduction, food availability and foraging behaviors. When prey is scarce, group memory on where to find the best food can be a useful resource.
Researchers also believe that by grouping together, older animals can teach youngsters a bit about their own species culture. Complex collaborative feeding behaviors and migration routes are thought to be passed on this way.
What Are the Benefits of Social Networking?
A lot of animals in the wild show social group behavior. From the watchful group gaze of meerkats to the fight or flight in monk parakeets, social networks and behavior carry many benefits.
For example, National Geographic describes how meerkats use a cooperative approach to stay safe while foraging out in the open. As small mammals, they are at risk of being picked up by predatory birds. Having sentinels on guard to give a warning call helps to keep the group safe and well-fed — and by taking turns, it spreads the load so all benefit.
Social behaviors also benefit feeding strategies. Cooperation between humpback whales helps to round up more fish during bubble net feeding. Hakai Magazine explains how whales build a curtain of bubbles to funnel schools of fish into the waiting mouths of the wider social group.
Being social saves time and energy for members of the group. Eureka Alert describes how monk parakeets take their cues from their social network hierarchy to decide when to fight and when to flee. Picking their battles strategically saves time and potential injury by not tackling more dominant members.
Spread Those Memes
Wider social networks also help spread memes in the animal kingdom. A meme is a behavior that spreads by imitation rather than by inheritance. For example, Sea Watch Foundation describes how a new feeding technique spread among humpbacks. Lobtail feeding, where whales smack the water surface to round up prey, started with one individual then spread to around 40 percent of the population through social transmission. Researchers monitored social network associations to follow its spread among the humpbacks.
This has also been seen in primates sharing tools, poking termites out of nests or washing dirt-encrusted vegetables before eating them.
Anti-Social Animals Go It Alone
But not all species follow beluga whales social behavior; some prefer to go it alone most of the time. When there are obstacles such as limited resources or maybe aggression against the young and vulnerable, animals such as blue whales and tigers avoid social groups.
And sociability can fluctuate according to context. Since it takes two, the most obvious example is when animals group together during mating season. A study by the British Ecological Society found that African striped mice fluctuate between group and solitary living dependent on population density and resource availability dependent on breeding season. Colder seasons may entice mice to stay together for warmth, but they typically opt for solitary over group living when the population density is low during breeding season. Living together causes a lot of stress and competition in striped mice, and infanticide by other females is common. When there aren’t so many mice around, the animals can also take advantage of increased food and resource availability.
Social network studies, such as the one that uncovered new beluga whale facts, could help conservation and agriculture. As technology evolves, it’s becoming easier for researchers to examine animal social networks without disturbing them in the wild. This could lead to better protection for at-risk species.