News of the WeekEvolutionary Biology

DNA Suggests Cultural Traits Affect Whales' Evolution

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Science  27 Nov 1998:
Vol. 282, Issue 5394, pp. 1616
DOI: 10.1126/science.282.5394.1616

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On page 1708, a marine biologist suggests that in sperm whales and some other species, cultural traits--learned behaviors passed on to family members--are affecting the course of genetic evolution, a situation thus far documented only in humans. He has found a pattern of genetic markers in sperm whales implying, he says, that some whale matriarchs teach their groups as-yet-unidentified behaviors that give them a substantial survival advantage. Other marine and evolutionary biologists are greeting the proposal with great interest--and some caution, because so little is known about whale behavior and genetics.