University of St Andrews
Sea Mammal Research Unit
SMRU > Research > Social Behaviour / Cognition

Social Behaviour / Cognition

The structure of marine mammal societies varies considerably. Some species are largely solitary except during the breeding season while others live in stable family groups or in complex fission-fusion societies. During the breeding season many marine mammals can be found in large aggregations, where males try to attract females by song or monopolize them by forming harems or consortships, while females try to find the highest quality males and avoid sexual coercion.

Marine mammals also have surprisingly complex cognitive skills. Some of these have been seen as specific adaptations to the marine environment. For example, vocal learning may help to develop individual recognition systems that are resistant to high background noise or allows learning complex songs to attract females. However, many cognitive skills of marine mammals seem to have evolved to manage social relationships and often rival or exceed those found in non-human primates.


Photo-identification is used to track social relationships of individual marine mammals. Simultaneous tagging of more than one individual allows comparing movements and spatial proximity as a proxy for association patterns. Genetic methods are used to relate association patterns to genetic relationships and to determine the sex of individuals. Behavioural observation methods reveal the quality of social interactions. Cognitive abilities are mostly studied in captive animals, either by using video or sound playbacks or by training animals in forced choice or go/no-go procedures.


In seals and dolphins we study how genetic relatedness influences such association patterns. We also investigate how association patterns differ in different environments.

Paddy Pomeroy and others study social association patterns of seals during the pupping season to see whether females prefer specific individuals as neighbours  and whether associations persist with time. Behavioural mechanisms underpinning such associations are under scrutiny. Seals may also associate with specific individuals at sea which is investigated by comparing movement patterns of individuals.

Vincent Janik’s cognitive studies concentrate on individual recognition and complexity in communication skills as well as the acoustic perception of the environment.

Bernie McConnell is developing a telemetry system based upon mobile wireless sensor networks that will quantify the dynamics of social networks in wildlife species.

Marine mammals have complex cognitive skills



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