Sophisticated Social Networks Exist Among Beluga Whales, Study Finds

New research finds beluga whales have social networks similar to humans.

New research finds beluga whales have social networks similar to humans. LISA BARRY/NOAA

Beluga whales have complex social networks similar to human societies, with close relationships outside of their immediate kin, according to new research published in the journal Scientific Reports. The study alters scientists’ understanding of the whales’ social dynamics, which they attribute largely to the beluga’s highly developed vocalizations.

The research, let by scientists at Florida Atlantic University’s (FAU) Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute, used field observations, DNA profiling, and genotyping of belugas from 10 sites across the Arctic. Previously, belugas were thought to live in communities where social bonds focused on closely related individuals from the same maternal lineage, similar to killer whales and African elephants.

But the new study finds that belugas, which have lifespans of 70 years, on average, not only form bonds with close kin, but also more distant and even unrelated individuals — similar to human societies. The whales were often found in pods organized by age or sex rather than just family, with large groups of unrelated adult males traveling together, for example. Such relationships go beyond those needed strictly for survival, and likely mean that “beluga communities have similarities to human societies where social networks, support structures, cooperation and cultures involve interactions between kin and non-kin,” the study authors write.

The findings “improve our understanding of why some species are social, how individuals learn from group members and how animal cultures emerge,” Greg O’Corry-Crowe, an ecologist at FAU and the lead author of the new study, said in a statement. They also “will hopefully promote new research on what constitutes species resilience and how species like the beluga whale can respond to emerging threats including climate change,” said O’Corry-Crowe.