When it comes to conservation, it’s common knowledge that preserving the environment is critical. It’s perhaps less widely known but just as important to understand the cultural behaviour of whales — the practices and habits passed on from generation to generation — that can help or hinder pods to succeed.

(Biologist Hal) Whitehead uses the belugas of Hudson Bay, in northern Canada, as an example. At least three populations of belugas migrate to Hudson Bay in the summer, and Whitehead focuses on two: One that goes to the eastern side and one to the western side. Which side a whale goes to is a matter of family tradition that baby belugas learn from their mothers. Decades ago, commercial whalers overharvested the eastern population. Yet new generations of eastern belugas kept following their mothers to that more dangerous side of the bay. The eastern population became dangerously depleted while the western whales thrived.

When a pocket of animals with specialized knowledge is lost, “it’s not like it’s immediately replaced. And so you start to blink out unique cultures,” he said. “And that is a loss of adaptive potential going forward.”