DNA Suggests Cultural Traits Affect Whales' Evolution
Gretchen Vogel
Science 282, 5394 (27 Nov 1998): 1616.

Vogel, a marine biologist, suggests that in sperm whales and some other species, cultural traits -- learned behaviors passed on to family members--are affecting the course of genetic evolution, a situation thus far documented only in humans. He has found a pattern of genetic markers in sperm whales implying, he says, that some whale matriarchs teach their groups as-yet-unidentified behaviors that give them a substantial survival advantage. Other marine and evolutionary biologists are greeting the proposal with great interest--and some caution, because so little is known about whale behavior and genetics.

See also
Cultural Selection and Genetic Diversity in Matrilineal Whales
Hal Whitehead
Science 282 (1998): 1708-1711.

Low diversities of mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) have recently been found in four species of matrilineal whale. No satisfactory explanation for this apparent anomaly has been previously suggested. Culture seems to be an important part of the lives of matrilineal whales. The selection of matrilineally transmitted cultural traits, upon which neutral mtDNA alleles "hitchhike," has the potential to strongly reduce genetic variation. Thus, in contrast to other nonhuman mammals, culture may be an important evolutionary force for the matrilineal whales.

Department of Biology, Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada B3H 4J1. E-mail:


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