Sperm whales warned each other about harpoon attacks and learned to avoid hunters, research suggests

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Sperm whales taught one another to escape from harpoon attacks at the height of the whale hunting industry in the 19th century, a new study suggests.

Researchers analysing digitised logbooks of American whalers in the North Pacific found that the rate of successful harpooning, or “striking” sighted whales fell by about 58 per cent within the first few years of industrial exploitation.

The study, led by cetacean scientists Hal Whitehead and Luke Rendell alongside data scientist Tim D Smith, concluded that the whales were sharing vital information about the hunts with each other and changing their behaviour to survive.

The drop-off in successful harpooning could not be attributed to other factors such as better competence among early whalers or the initial killing of particularly vulnerable individuals, said the scientists.

Models used in the study, published by The Royal Society journal, showed that “social learning” led to the whales learning “defensive measures” from other whales who had survived previous experiences with the whalers.

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