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When Roswell Schaeffer Sr. was 8 years old, his father thought it was time for him to learn how to hunt beluga whales. Schaeffer was an Iñupiaq kid who grew up in Kotzebue, a small city in northwest Alaska, where stockpiling healthy beluga meat was part of getting through the winter. Every summer, thousands of beluga whales migrate to Kotzebue Sound, and the hunt is an annual tradition. Whale skin and blubber, or muktuk, are valued not only as a livelihood and trade commodity, but also for the spiritual value of sharing the catch with the community.
Now, nearly seven years later, Schaeffer is one of the few hunters still spending the late spring weeks in the Kotzebue Strait, just after the ice melts, waiting for the arrival of the belugas. Many have switched to hunting bearded seals, in part out of necessity: there simply aren’t enough beluga whales to keep communities afloat.
In the 1980s, Kotzebue Sound’s beluga population began to dwindle, from thousands to hundreds, and then to the dozens or fewer that now visit the area. Kotzebue is not alone. Despite the health of some populations, beluga populations have declined in about six regions over the past 50 years. Hunting, commercial whaling and other impacts pushed whales to the brink decades ago. Now, even as hunting has stopped in some places, pressures from climate change, increased ship traffic and chemical pollutants are gathering to threaten to get the job done.
But some scientists believe that understanding how whales respond to these stresses may ultimately be as important as understanding the stress itself. Belugas, like chimpanzees, birds, humans and many other animals, create cultures by passing knowledge and customs from generation to generation. As climate change and other human activities reshape the world at breakneck speed, beluga whales may have to rely on innovative cultural practices to adapt — genetic adaptation is simply too slow to keep up.
However, cultural conventions can become rote, and like humans, other animals can persist long after traditions no longer make sense. A key question, according to behavioral ecologist Greg O’Corry-Crowe of Florida Atlantic University, is: Will culture tide the whales over?
“When change is so massive, maybe so rapid, you try to find innovators and pioneers among social conservatives,” O’Corry-Crowe said. Meanwhile, Indigenous people like Schaeffer face their own struggles. Continued hunting of beluga whales could harm the whales’ chances of recovery, but if indigenous groups abandon the practice, they risk losing the knowledge that has helped them survive in the Arctic for thousands of years.
philosophers and scientists It has long been believed that animals can learn. But even in the early 2000s, scientists were still debating the idea that animals accumulate knowledge over generations. One animal that helped popularize the concept was the killer whale.