Friday, 3 June 2016

Cultural experiences shape orca whale evolution

JUNE 1, 2016

by Chuck Bednar

While researchers have come to accept that cultural experiences have played a key role in human evolution, they had never discovered evidence to suggest that any other species of living creature underwent biological changes in order to fulfill a specific niche – until now.

Writing in Tuesday’s edition of the journal Nature Communications, Andrew Foote, an ecologist at the University of Bern, Switzerland, and his colleagues revealed that they had found evidence indicating that such cultural experiences might shape killer whale evolution.
As New Scientist explained, humans developed genes for lactose tolerance after they first became dairy farmers, indicating that their behavior had a direct influence on their genomes. Now, Foote and his fellow researchers have found that, despite their wide distribution, individual orca groups appear to remain in one general area and stick to a specific predatory strategy.

For instance, some heard their prey into bait balls, while others intentionally beach themselves in order to attract seals or other mammals. Since these groups tend to remain stable for up to several decades, these behaviors can be passed on from one generation to another. The authors identified five specific niches, and set out to see if the groups were genetically distinct from one another.

They found that the genomes of killer whales could be categorized into five distinct groups, each of which directly corresponded with one of the five cultural niches. Even though each of the orca groups shared a common ancestor as recently as 200,000 years ago, the research revealed that all of them experienced a different genetic evolution due to this social learning.

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