Dr. Valeria Vergara is teaching a course on whale and dolphin culture

Deep minds: learning, culture and tradition in whales and dolphins is open for registration through SFU.

Until recently, “culture” was considered uniquely human, based on a philosophical position that humans fundamentally differ from animals. But evidence of culture is emerging in many species, and whales and dolphins provide compelling examples, with their large brains, long lives, strong sociality and sophisticated communication systems. We will examine how and why whales, dolphins and other social species innovate, learn socially, and generate culturally transmitted information and behavioural traditions. We will challenge preconceptions about animals and what it means to be a cultural species, blurring the line between “us” and “them.”

Senior Scientist and Co-Director of our Cetacean Conservation Research Program, Dr. Valeria Vergara, is teaching the course, which is part of the SFU’s Continuing Studies Program.

This course will be offered on Wednesdays 12 p.m.-1:30 p.m. beginning October 26. Registration is open


Location: Online
Format: Self-paced with weekly virtual class
Duration: 6 weeks
Tuition: $180 (a $50 discount will be applied automatically for adults 55+)
Can be applied to: Liberal Arts for 55+ Certificate

Course outline

Week 1: Case study: killer whales

Orcas live in matrilineal groups, and culture shapes their hunting, play and mating. Individual cultural groups have become genetically distinct, an example of gene-culture co-evolution. What are the ecological advantages of cultural groups? What does culture really mean?

Week 2: Case study: sperm whales

Sperm whale societies are organized into matrilineal families and clans with distinct dialects, forming a mosaic of learned traditions. During the whaling era, sperm whales learned from each other how to outwit whalers. How do new behavioural tactics spread through populations?

Week 3: Case study: humpback whales

Male humpback whales sing remarkable, complex songs, which can undergo cultural evolution and even a cultural revolution every few years. How do humpbacks share song ideas? What is the role of novelty in cultural evolution? Do humpbacks have feeding traditions?

Week 4: Case study: bottlenose dolphins

Bottlenose dolphins use marine sponges and shells as tools. Some dolphins fish cooperatively with humans. How are these foraging behaviours transmitted? Why do dolphins form cliques with culturally similar dolphins? How do dolphins communicate and what is the role of learning?

Week 5: Case study: beluga whales

Beluga whales return to summering areas across the Arctic every year. How does culture guide this migration? Belugas are also very loquacious. How do they use their calls to mediate their complex social interactions? Do belugas also have vocal cultures?

Week 6: The culture club

Drawing from the entire course, we discuss the importance of elders as carriers of social and ecological knowledge, the role of long-term studies in understanding culture, the association between cultural richness and brain size, and the implications of culture for conservation.

What you will learn

By the end of the course, you should be able to do the following:

  • Describe how biologists use the term “culture” and what its prerequisites are
  • Identify features shared by humans and other cultural species
  • Describe how cultural traditions are formed and the evidence for cultural transmission in whales, dolphins and other cultural species
  • Explain why vocal traditions and learning provide a strong foundation for studying culture
  • Examine the ramifications of losing a culture

Learning methods

  • Academic and non-academic articles, and other online resources
  • Participation in written discussions with other students
  • Participation in videoconference seminars
  • Reflective essay (applicable only to certificate students)

Learning materials

No textbook is required. We will provide all course materials online.

Technical requirements

For online courses, you will need a computer with audio and microphone that is connected to the internet. Canvas is the online system that will be used for the course. For more information and online support, visit Online Learning.

To get the most out of this online course, you should be comfortable with:

  • Using everyday software such as browsers, email and social media
  • Navigating a website by clicking on links and finding pages in a menu
  • Downloading and opening PDF documents
  • Posting, replying and uploading images to a discussion board
  • Participating in videoconferencing sessions

New to Zoom Meetings? A few days before the course starts, we’ll host a virtual drop-in time on Zoom so you can check your Zoom access and test your computer’s camera, microphone and speakers.

You can help

Raincoast’s in-house scientists, collaborating graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and professors make us unique among conservation groups. We work with First Nations, academic institutions, government, and other NGOs to build support and inform decisions that protect aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems, and the wildlife that depend on them. We conduct ethically applied, process-oriented, and hypothesis-driven research that has immediate and relevant utility for conservation deliberations and the collective body of scientific knowledge.

We investigate to understand coastal species and processes. We inform by bringing science to decision-makers and communities. We inspire action to protect wildlife and wildlife habitats.

Coastal wolf with a salmon in its month.
Photo by Dene Rossouw.