Skip to content
Research Fellows Directory

Ellen Garland

Dr Ellen Garland

Research Fellow


University of St Andrews

Research summary

Animal culture and social learning is a controversial topic despite growing evidence of its existence in primates, cetaceans, and birds. Humpback whale songs are one of the most outstanding examples of transmission of a cultural trait and social learning in any non-human animal. Recent work has demonstrated a clear pattern of complete population-wide changes that were replicated in multiple populations over a vast geographic region. The level and rate of change is unparalleled in the animal kingdom; humpback whales are thus excellent models for studying social learning. The overall aim of this project is to investigate social learning in animals through the cultural transmission of humpback whale songs. Here, we investigate incomplete song revolutions where the song transmission pattern dissolves, and extremely rare instances of song hybridisation, where parts of the existing song are spliced with a novel song, to gain an understanding of the underlying mechanisms driving cultural change in this display. This work will contribute to our knowledge of conformity and plasticity in song learning, mechanisms of cultural transmission and cultural evolution, and the fundamental concepts underlying the selective forces driving the evolution of culture in higher organisms.

Grants awarded

Sexy singing: cultural evolution and sexual selection in a complex song display

Scheme: University Research Fellowship

Dates: Oct 2017 - Sep 2022

Value: £495,766.44

Culture in whales: transmission of a complex display

Scheme: Newton International Fellowships

Dates: Feb 2015 - Feb 2017

Value: £97,715