Dr Luke Rendell:
MASTS Reader in Biology

Research Overview:

"The true biologist deals with life, with teeming boisterous life, and learns something from it, learns that the first rule of life is living"
John Steinbeck, The Log from the Sea of Cortez

 Follow me on Twitter: @_lrendell

ResearcherID: G-2594-2010 

I am a Reader in Biology affiliated with the Scottish Ocean Institute, Sea Mammal Research Unit, the Centre for Biological Diversity, the Centre for Social Learning and Cognitive Evolution, and the Institute of Behavioural and Neural Sciences.

I have broad research interests, largely centred around the evolution of learning, behaviour and communication, with a special focus on marine mammals.

Latest paper(s)

Adaptation of sperm whales to open-boat whalers: rapid social learning on a large scale?
Whitehead, H., Smith, T. D. & Rendell, L., 17 Mar 2021, In: Biology Letters

Animals can mitigate human threats, but how do they do this, and how fast can they adapt? Hunting sperm whales was a major nineteenth century industry. Analysis of data from digitized logbooks of American whalers in the North Pacific found that the rate at which whalers succeeded in harpooning (‘striking’) sighted whales fell by about 58% over the first few years of exploitation in a region. This decline cannot be explained by the earliest whalers being more competent, as their strike rates outside the North Pacific, where whaling had a longer history, were not elevated. The initial killing of particularly vulnerable individuals would not have produced the observed rapid decline in strike rate. It appears that whales swiftly learned effective defensive behaviour. Sperm whales live in kin-based social units. Our models show that social learning, in which naive social units, when confronted by whalers, learned defensive measures from grouped social units with experience, could lead to the documented rapid decline in strike rate. This rapid, large-scale adoption of new behaviour enlarges our concept of the spatio-temporal dynamics of non-human culture.

Individual behavioural traits not social context affects learning about novel objects in archerfish
Jones, N. A. R., Spence-Jones, H. C., Webster, M. & Rendell, L. E., 22 Feb 2021, In: Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology

Learning can enable rapid behavioural responses to changing conditions but can depend on the social context and behavioural phenotype of the individual. Learning rates have been linked to consistent individual differences in behavioural traits, especially in situations which require engaging with novelty, but the social environment can also play an important role. The presence of others can modulate the effects of individual behavioural traits and afford access to social information that can reduce the need for ‘risky’ asocial learning. Most studies of social effects on learning are focused on more social species; however, such factors can be important even for less-social animals, including non-grouping or facultatively social species which may still derive benefit from social conditions. Using archerfish, Toxotes chatareus, which exhibit high levels of intra-specific competition and do not show a strong preference for grouping, we explored the effect of social contexts on learning. Individually housed fish were assayed in an ‘open-field’ test and then trained to criterion in a task where fish learnt to shoot a novel cue for a food reward—with a conspecific neighbour visible either during training, outside of training or never (full, partial or no visible presence). Time to learn to shoot the novel cue differed across individuals but not across social context. This suggests that social context does not have a strong effect on learning in this non-obligatory social species; instead, it further highlights the importance that inter-individual variation in behavioural traits can have on learning.

Our book, The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins is even available at Amazon! Hear it discussed on BBC Radio 4's "Start the Week". Listen to a podcast of a discussion between myself and author Phillip Hoare at the LSE Philosophy Forum here


Sperm whale society and ecology
I have been studying the ecologycommunication and societies of sperm whales, the largest of the toothed whales, showing how long lasting social groups use distinctive vocal dialects that appear to be culturally transmitted. Part of this work is my involvement in running the Balearics Sperm Whale Project and as a collaborator of the Dominica Sperm Whale Project.

Culture in whales and dolphins
In whales and dolphins we find examples of both complex communication and apparently widespread social learning, a simple form of culture. I am using statistical models to assess the evidence for social learning in wild cetaceans.

Learning in archerfish
Archerfish have the highly specialised hunting tactic of shooting down prey with water jets. The dexterity and accuracy with which they do this has made them a model system in visual cognition. We are studying their shooting behaviour and learning to understand how this adaptation has interacted with their cognition.

Human social learning
I use experimental approaches to understand how we negotiate the trade-offs involved in deciding whether to use social information to make simple decisions, as a window into how we have evolved to make best use of our cultural inheritance.

Evolutionary modelling
I also use evolutionary simulation models to understand how these processes like social learning might have evolved, and how they might be related to the evolution of other kinds of behaviour, such as cooperation and niche-construction.

East Coast Marine Mammal Acoustic Study (ECOMMAS)
We are deploying passive listening buoys along the Scottish coastline in collaboration with Marine Scotland Science to monitor the impact of coastal windfarm development and also to give insight into acoustic behaviour of marine mammals.


We value outreach work highly. Here are some links to some recent activities that myself and other lab members have been involved with:


Science without borders!

An approach to academic life: 12 guidelines for survival



Dr Luca Lamoni completed his PhD "The role of individual behaviour in the collective cultural evolution of humpback whale songs” in 2018

Dr Ellen Garland held her Newton International Fellowship in our group from 2015 to 2017.

Dr Kaitlin Palmer completed her PhD "Large-Scale and Long-Term Passive Acoustic Monitoring of Coastal Bottlenose Dolphins" in 2017

Dr Elena Miu completed her PhD “Understanding human culture : theoretical and experimental studies of cumulative culture” in 2017

Dr Charlotte Dunn finished her PhD "Insights into Blainville's Beaked Whale (Mesoplodon densirostris) communication" in January 2015

Dr Thomas Morgan completed his PhD, co-supervised with Kevin Laland and titled "Experimental studies of human social learning and its evolution" in December 2013

Dr Laurel Fogarty completed her PhD, co-supervised with Kevin Laland and titled "From social learning to culture: Mathematical and computational models of cultural evolution" in June 2012

Dr Ricardo Antunes completed his PhD, co-supervised with Phil Hammond and Jonathan Gordon, and titled "Variation in sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus) coda vocalizations and social structure in the North Atlantic Ocean" in March 2009



Data could not be retrieved from PURE at this time. (research-outputs/persons)