Deep Minds: Learning, Culture and Tradition in Whales and Dolphins

Until recently, culture was considered a uniquely human phenomenon, based largely on a philosophical position that humans fundamentally differ from animals. But evidence of culture is emerging in the animal world, and whales and dolphins provide compelling examples, with their large brains, long lives (including long post-reproductive lives), strong sociality and sophisticated communication systems. Through case studies, we will examine how and why whales, dolphins and other social species innovate, learn socially, and generate culturally transmitted information and behavioural traditions. We will challenge our preconceptions about what animals are capable of and what it means to be a cultural species, blurring the line between “us” and “them.”

A $50 discount will be applied automatically for adults 55+.

This course is available at the following time(s) and location(s):

Campus Session(s) Instructor(s) Cost Seats available  
Online - Valeria Vergara $170.00 4 Register

Schedule clarification: This is a four-week online course. It runs from Monday, November 8 to Friday, December 3. Each week, all week, you can study that week’s material, post and respond to discussion board topics, and engage in course activities. You will participate in Zoom Meetings sessions each Wednesday from 4:30–6 p.m. Pacific Time.

Learning objectives

By the end of the course, you should be able to do the following:

  • Describe how biologists use the term “culture” and what its prerequisites are
  • Identify features shared by humans and other cultural species
  • Describe how cultural traditions are formed and the evidence for cultural transmission in whales, dolphins and other cultural species
  • Explain why vocal traditions and learning provide a strong foundation for studying culture
  • Examine the ramifications of losing a culture

Learning methods

Your online learning will include the following methods:

  • Reading academic and non-academic articles
  • Participation in written discussions with other students
  • Participation in videoconference seminars

For Liberal Arts for 55+ Certificate students: you will write a reflective essay.


Week 1: Case study: killer whales

Orcas live in tight-knit matrilineal groups led by older females. Culture shapes what orcas eat, how they hunt, what they do for fun, the sounds they use and who they mate with. Individual cultural groups have become genetically distinct from each other, an example of gene-culture co-evolution. What are the ecological advantages of sticking to a cultural group? What does culture really mean?

Week 2: Case study: sperm whales

Sperm whale societies are organized into matrilineal family units and clans with distinct vocal dialects. The clans form a mosaic of learned traditions. During the whaling era, sperm whales learned from each other how to outwit whalers. How do new behavioral tactics spread through communities and populations?

Week 3: Case study: humpback whales

Male humpback whales sing remarkable, complex songs, which can undergo cultural evolution and even a cultural revolution every few years. How do humpbacks share song ideas? What is the role of novelty in cultural evolution?

Week 4: Case studies: beluga whales and bottlenose dolphins

The annual return of beluga whales to summering areas across the Arctic may involve migratory culture. Do belugas also have vocal cultures? Bottlenose dolphins use marine sponges as tools, a culturally transmitted behaviour. Why do dolphins form culturally similar cliques? Drawing from the entire course, we discuss the importance of older individuals as carriers of social and ecological knowledge, and the implications of culture for conservation.

Books, materials and resources

You will access course resources using SFU’s online course management system, Canvas.

Technical requirements

This course is delivered using SFU's online learning system, Canvas. You can check if your browser is compatible with Canvas here.  

To get the most out of this online course, you should be comfortable doing the following:

  • Using everyday software such as browsers, email and social media
  • Navigating a website by clicking on links and finding pages in a menu
  • Downloading and opening PDF documents
  • Posting, replying and uploading images to a discussion board
  • Participating in videoconferencing sessions

You will be participating in videoconferencing using Zoom Meetings. For this, your computer needs to have a camera, microphone and speakers or headphones. Your computer software should be up to date with the latest available operating system and browser versions.

Accessing your course

  • A few days before the course starts, we will email you more information about the course and how you'll access it. You will also receive an email inviting you to access the Canvas learning platform (click on the link in the invitation to join the course). Once you’ve accessed Canvas, you can begin exploring the platform on your own. The full course will be accessible on its start date.
  • We’ll also host a virtual drop-in time on Zoom Meetings a few days before the course starts. This will give you a chance to check that you can access Zoom Meetings, and that your computer’s camera and microphone and speakers are working properly.

If you're 55+, you may take this course as part of

Look at other courses in