Drawing upon a database of 27 years of observations of whale foraging, the model returned a result that, at a bare minimum, the humpbacks were 1 million times more likely to have learned the feeding technique from peers than to have each learned it individually.
"It was so big my supervisor made me run it again because he thought I might have messed it up somehow," Allen told LiveScience. "It was so startling to have that strong a result."
The whales perform this behavior, slapping their mammoth tales on the surface one to four times, just before diving and bombarding their prey with bubbles, which helps to organize them into schools upon which the whales can more easily feed, Allen said. The purpose of the technique, called lobtail feeding, is unclear, but it's possible it helps organize the fish into tighter formations before mealtime, she added.
Learning from peers Whales learn the technique from other whales that they tend to spend a lot of time with, the study found. Importantly, the humpback whales didn't appear to learn the technique from their mothers, said Jooke Robbins, a senior scientist at the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown, Mass., who wasn't involved in the study. That makes it easier to conclude that the behavior is socially learned, as opposed to genetically preprogrammed.