Sperm whales taught each other how to avoid hunters’ harpoons 200 years ago, according to new study

Sperm Whales
A pod of sperm whales swimming underwater.

  • Sperm whales taught each other how to avoid harpoons 200 years ago, according to a new study.
  • It was based on newly digitized logbooks from hunters in the North Pacific in the 19th century.
  • The paper concluded that the decline in harpoon strike rates was due to whales communicating with each other.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Sperm whales taught each other how to avoid harpoons after hunting for them began 200 years ago, according to a new study.

Published by the Royal Society on Wednesday, the research was based on newly digitized logbooks from American whalers, which recorded details of their expeditions in the North Pacific during the 19th century, such as the number of whales spotted or harpooned.

Although they were in high demand for their whalebone, ivory, and blubber and almost 80,000 ‘voyage days’ recorded, there were only 2,405 successful whale sightings, a mere 3% success rate.

The study’s authors, cetacean researchers Professor Hal Whitehead and Dr. Luke Rendell, as well as data scientist Dr. Tim D Smith, also found that the strike rate of the whalers’ harpoons fell by 58% in less than two and half years after they first began hunting in the region.

In Halifax, Canada, Professor Whitehead of Dalhousie University told The Owen Sun Sound Times: “That was very remarkable. I thought there might be a drop, but not that much and not that quickly.

“Usually, you expect it to increase as they figure out stuff and become more successful. That’s typically how our exploitation of wildlife goes. We become more efficient as we learn how to do it.”

The study concluded that sperm whales had learned how they were being killed, shared this information with their pod and changed their behavior accordingly, displaying ‘cultural evolution.’

The species live with their children in female-only pods or groups, allowing them to form close links and share tips to evade hunters.

The hunters recognized the sperm whales had developed tactics to evade them. Instead of forming defensive squares used to fight off their natural predators, the killer whale, the sperm whales, understood that swimming against the wind would allow them to outrun the wind-powered hunters’ ships.

The advent of steam power and grenade harpoons in the later years of the 19th century meant even the canny sperm whale was doomed to mass slaughter, however.

‘This was cultural evolution, much too fast for genetic evolution,’ says Whitehead.

Sperm whales have the largest brain of any animal on the planet and the researchers highlighted that if they were able to adapt 200 years ago, they could probably also face the ocean’s challenges today.

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Navy photos show a patrol plane armed with anti-ship missiles in the Middle East

Navy P-8A Poseidon AGM-84 Harpoon missile
Sailors load an AGM-84 Harpoon missile onto a P-8A Poseidon aircraft in the 5th Fleet area of operations, January 15, 2021.

  • A Navy P-8A Poseidon is shown carrying AGM-84D Harpoon missiles in photos taken in January but released this month.
  • It’s not the first time a Poseidon has been spotted with that kind of weapon, but it appears to be the first time a P-8 in the Persian Gulf has been seen with it.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

The US Navy P-8A Poseidon aircraft have started flying missions in the US 5th Fleet AOR (Area of Operations) carrying AGM-84D Harpoon missiles.

Images just released by the naval service through the DVIDS network show sailors assigned to the “Fighting Tigers” of Patrol Squadron 8, deployed with Commander, Task Force (CTF) 57, performing preflight checks on AGM-84 Harpoon missiles carried by a P-8A of VP-8 ahead of a mission in the US 5th Fleet area of operations (that encompasses the Persian Gulf, Red Sea, Arabian Sea, and parts of the Indian Ocean) on January 15-16, 2021.

While the location where the images were taken has not been disclosed, it seems quite likely that the P-8A was being serviced at its usual deployment base in Manama, Bahrain, where P-3 Orion and Poseidon aircraft supporting CTF-57 are usually based.

CTF-57 is the maritime patrol and reconnaissance aircraft Task Force for the US 5th Fleet, Naval Forces Central Command, and Combined Maritime Forces.

CTF-57 aircraft conduct missions in support of maritime operations to ensure stability, security, and the free flow of commerce in the Central Command area of responsibility, which connects the Mediterranean and Pacific through the Western Indian Ocean.

Navy P-8A Poseidon
A P-8A Poseidon on a flight line in the 5th Fleet area of operations, January 16, 2021.

The AGM-84D Harpoon is an anti-ship missile that complements the Mk 54 air-launched lightweight torpedo, used for ASW (Anti-Submarine Warfare) mission.

It’s obviously not the first time the Poseidon is spotted carrying this kind of weapon, although it’s the first time we see this armament on a P-8 deployed to the Persian Gulf area.

We don’t know where the Poseidon with its live Harpoon payload flew after the shots were taken.

The P-8s are a common presence in the Persian Gulf area, where they have often been tracked by means of their Mode-S transponders. However, they also extend their patrols to the Gulf of Oman and to the Horn of Africa, where they support anti-piracy operations.

Still, considered when the image was taken (mid-January, a period of intense Iranian naval activity in the Persian Gulf and Strait of Hormuz), it seems more likely that that kind of weaponry was loaded to deter any kind of attack against US Navy warships and commercial traffic in the area.

In fact, the US has maintained a significant naval presence in region consistently since May 2019, as a hedge against Iran. Since then, a carrier strike group has been positioned in the Gulf round-the-clock, with few gaps in presence.

At the beginning of February, USS Makin Island Amphibious Ready Group and embarked Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 164 (Reinforced), 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit (with its F-35Bs) transited the Strait of Hormuz to operate in the Persian Gulf replacing USS Nimitz, after supporting Operation Octave Quartz off the coast of Somalia.

Navy P-8A Poseidon AGM-84 Harpoon missile
A sailor preforms a preflight check on an AGM-84 Harpoon missile on a P-8A Poseidon aircraft in the US 5th Fleet area of operations, January 16, 2021.

P-8As are maritime patrol aircraft but even when they are not loaded with anti-ship missiles or toperdos, they carry a wide array of sensors that give the aircraft the ability to operate in the ISR (Intelligence Surveillance Reconnaissance) battlespace. Here’s what we have already explained in a previous article here at The Aviationist:

[…] the P-8s are multi-mission platforms that can gather valuable intelligence using a wide array of sensors. Among these, an Advanced Airborne Sensor (a dual-sided AESA radar that can offer 360-degree scanning on targets on land or coastal areas, and which has potential applications as a jamming or even cyberwarfare platform according to Northrop Grumman); an APY-10 multi-mode synthetic aperture radar; an MX-20 electro-optical/infrared turret for shorter-range search; and an ALQ-240 Electronic Support Measure (ESM) suite, able to geo-locate and track enemy radar emitters. Moreover, all sensors contribute to a single fused tactical situation display, which is then shared over both military standard and internet protocol data links, allowing for seamless delivery of information amongst U.S. and coalition forces.

In that respect, the P-8A Poseidon represents a huge leap forward if compared to the P-3 Orion. For instance, the externally mounted AP/ANY-10 MTI imaging radar system (upgrade from the P-3’s Littoral Surveillance Radar System – LSRS), adds both an overland and maritime MTI capability approaching the fidelity provided by the US Joint Surveillance and Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS). The significant difference with the more modern P-3s is, in particular, in the P-8’s ability to rapidly exchange and share information internally among the crew and externally among joint partners.

H/T Ryan Chan for the heads-up!

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