Behavior Genetics

, Volume 42, Issue 2, pp 332–343 | Cite as

Can Genetic Differences Explain Vocal Dialect Variation in Sperm Whales, Physeter macrocephalus?

  • Luke RendellEmail author
  • Sarah L. Mesnick
  • Merel L. Dalebout
  • Jessica Burtenshaw
  • Hal Whitehead
Original Research


Sperm whale social groups can be assigned to vocal clans based on their production of codas, short stereotyped patterns of clicks. It is currently unclear whether genetic variation could account for these behavioural differences. We studied mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) variation among sympatric vocal clans in the Pacific Ocean, using sequences extracted from sloughed skin samples. We sampled 194 individuals from 30 social groups belonging to one of three vocal clans. As in previous studies of sperm whales, mtDNA control region diversity was low (π = 0.003), with just 14 haplotypes present in our sample. Both hierarchical AMOVAs and partial Mantel tests showed that vocal clan was a more important factor in matrilineal population genetic structure than geography, even though our sampling spanned thousands of kilometres. The variance component attributed to vocal dialects (7.7%) was an order of magnitude higher than those previously reported in birds, while the variance component attributed to geographic area was negligible. Despite this, the two most common haplotypes were present in significant quantities in each clan, meaning that variation in the control region cannot account for behavioural variation between clans, and instead parallels the situation in humans where parent-offspring transmission of language variation has resulted in correlations with neutral genes. Our results also raise questions for the management of sperm whale populations, which has traditionally been based on dividing populations into geographic ‘stocks’, suggesting that culturally-defined vocal clans may be more appropriate management units.


Sperm whale Vocal dialect Cultural transmission Genetic population structure 



The National Geographic Society and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada provided funding for fieldwork. L.R. was supported by a NERC Postdoctoral Fellowship and M.L.D. was supported by a Killam Memorial Postdoctoral Fellowship and a Vice-Chancellor’s Postdoctoral Fellowship (UNSW). Mary Dillon and Jenny Christal kindly shared the results of their genetic and photographic analyses respectively. Mike Ritchie, Jeff Graves, Kelly Stewart and Valentina Islas provided analytical advice and support. We thank Jeff Graves, Karen Martien, Kelly Stewart and two anonymous reviewers for comments that improved the manuscript.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  • Luke Rendell
    • 1
    Email author
  • Sarah L. Mesnick
    • 2
    • 3
  • Merel L. Dalebout
    • 4
    • 5
  • Jessica Burtenshaw
    • 2
    • 3
  • Hal Whitehead
    • 4
  1. 1.Centre for Social Learning and Cognitive EvolutionSchool of Biology, University of St AndrewsSt Andrews, FifeUK
  2. 2.Southwest Fisheries Science CenterNational Marine Fisheries Service, NOAALa JollaUSA
  3. 3.Center for Marine Biodiversity and ConservationScripps Institution of Oceanography University of CaliforniaSan Diego, La JollaUSA
  4. 4.Department of BiologyDalhousie UniversityHalifaxCanada
  5. 5.School of Biological, Earth and Environmental SciencesUniversity of New South WalesSydneyAustralia

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