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While many mermaids are hunter gatherers some live a pastoral life, herding creatures like domesticated manatees. Along with this some mermaids (particularly giant mermaids) herd baleen whales using them for their meat and bones to trade with the land races.

Some basic characteristics of these giant mermaids include:

  • being 26 feet (8 meters) long
  • having human-level intelligence
  • having Stone age level technology

Given these characteristics could giant mermaids domesticate baleen whales, like humpbacks with stone age technology?

Note: Magic does not exist in my story

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    $\begingroup$ Domestication usually involves some form of benefit to the herd animal (protection, secure food sources, etc.) and I'm not sure your merfolk have anything to offer that the the whales don't get themselves. Not to mention that whales are pretty smart, and would recognize predation. They also don't often form very large herds. I'm sure they could manage to domesticate individuals, though. You might have better luck with some variety of fish. $\endgroup$
    – DWKraus
    Apr 28 at 1:37
  • $\begingroup$ I'm seriously tempted to mark this a duplicate of How Does Society Domesticate the Hippo? because the answer I gave is basically the appropriate answer for this question and, from a certain point of view, two questions that enjoy the very same answer are intrinsically duplicates... but I'll let others judge that. (Hint: the mermaids are basically irrelevant.) $\endgroup$ Apr 28 at 3:22
  • $\begingroup$ "Could they" is pretty much up to you. You're writing a story with mermaids so having a species of whale that they can domesticate is an author's choice. However as described I would suggest what you want is not domestication any more than whaling is domestication in the real world. $\endgroup$
    – StephenG
    Apr 28 at 7:19
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Sure they could.

Caring for baleen whales means doing a few things:

  1. Keeping their natural predators (orcas, giant sharks like the Megalodon) away;
  2. Herding them into proper feeding areas;
  3. Castrating or culling the weak or less meaty ones.

If the giant mermaids know what they are doing, they can keep a nice, balanced ecossystem that would be proper for baleen whales to feed all year round. This would reduce their need for migration. Otherwise, if the giant mermaids wish to be nomads, they can let the whles find food on their own, but also tie their stuff to the whales so the latter double as work animals. You just need to follow them during their migrations.

And when a whale is fat enough, take it to a shark-free shallow bay and cut its fluke off. You now have a lot of meat and bone to do your thing.

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Possibly for certain whale species.

they would likely be similar to the domestication of caribou by nomadic groups, with the merepeople traveling with the whales.

You have a major problems to overcome, many baleen whales are very intelligent which is very bad for domestication. You want a a domesticated animal doing what you want it to do, which is extremely difficult if it is intelligent. Intelligent creatures are clever, easily bored, easily frustrated, and do not take well to confinement. you will need to stick to the less intelligent baleen whales like bowheads and right whales. Even then they may be too intelligent.

Whales are also slow breeders but we don't know how long your merefolk live or how fast they breed, So tis might not be as big a problem. It does mean they need to be eating a lot of other stuff as well, they can't survive off whales.

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Probably Not

The problems with domesticating whales are the same with domesticating elephants. Elephants are big, intelligent, like to roam, and breed slowly. It is incredibly difficult for humans to restrain elephants, which is why elephants are often tamed by taking orphaned baby elephants and raising them but aren't readily bred in captivity, much less selectively bred in any numbers, much less quantities that could provide food.

Whales provide an order of magnitude bigger problem. The smallest baleen whales are the same size as a bull African elephant, and most are much, much larger. It would be incredibly hard to pen in a whale or make it go where you want. This would make herding whales very difficult, or selectively breeding them for tameness. And in the open ocean it's hard to pen whales.

Elephants were also much more useful as living construction equipment than being raised for food, given the expense in caring for an elephant.

But most importantly to all this is the fact that most baleen whales migrate (except maybe bowheads). They migrate to the tropics to give birth but then swim to the poles to feed in the summer. This migration is necessary to complete their life cycle. The whales have to give birth in the tropics because the babies aren't big or fat enough to survive in the cold Arctic or sub-Arctic waters, but the whales need the high-density krill and plankton of the polar oceans to fuel their immense bodies. It's probably not possible to supplement this food artificially in whales kept year-round in the tropics because it would require migration to the poles to get the volune of food necessary to feed them.

Indeed the existence of highly dense, nutrient-packed krill in the polar summer is what is thought to have allowed whales to get so large in the first place. Additionally, this migratory habit is likely what wiped out the megalodon, because megalodon couldn't keep up with the extreme long-distance migrations, couldn't easily handle large whales, and possibly couldn't go into the chilly sub-Arctic waters. This suggests that your merfolk trying to tame large whales like this would be very difficult to achieve.

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The main problem I see with domestication (as opposed to mere taming) is that whale breeding cycle is rather slow. That is, it takes a great deal of time to raise baby whales to where they will produce new baby whales (my quick search returned 4 to 11 years per generation).

Perhaps magic can decrease the age to maturity.

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The whales are not domesticated. It is a mixed herd of whales and mermaids.

Shrewd savannah species choose friends with benefits on the African plains mixed herd

Zebra reduce predation risk in mixed-species herds by eavesdropping on cues from giraffe

For animals, a key advantage of group living is a reduction in predation risk through dilution and/or collective detection. This reduced predation risks lowers vigilance levels and allows herbivores to devote more time to other activities... For some species, risk can be reduced further by herding with a diluting partner (i.e., another species that shares a common predator; zebra and wildebeest are “diluting partners”). A diluting partner may reduce predation risk from a shared predator by having different detecting abilities. Such mixed-species effects on risk likely reflect a heightened ability of the mixed group to detect approaching predators compared with single species herds.

Giant mermaids and baleen whales are preyed upon by the same formidable hunters. The mermaids are fiercer but their sensory apparatus is not as keen and they can be caught by surprise by fast moving predators. The whales are defensively less strong but they can perceive predators coming at great distances.

It is good synergy for the two groups, who stick together. The whales can send an alarm to call back in hunting mermaids, who then can put up a more formidable defense. Also the two groups use different foods and so do not compete with each other in that way.

It is a commensal relationship. Mermaids take milk and blood from whales, like the Maasai do with their cattle. Only whales that die of natural causes are used for meat or bone. The culture of each group overlaps with the other. The whales are intelligent enough to participate with some of the things mermaids do. The mermaids appreciate the elegance of the ancient whale ceremonies. They are not equals but they are partners.

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Sure, why not?

But I think that's more believable, if those merfolk lived somewhat nomadic and hunt whales like Native American tribes hunted the buffalo. They actively turned the land into an ideal habitat for buffalos (the Great Plains). They understood: Buffalos eat grass, that means more grassland leads to more buffalos. If we burn down the forest, grass will grow... hence: If we burn down the forest, we have more buffalos to hunt. So your merfolks could do a similar thing: Such as planting trails of plankton producing corals to change migration routes to lead the whales closer to their settlements/camps or domesticate swarms of smaller fish that those whales are mad about.

There's a problem of domesticating whales. They need huge amounts of food which they can't find at a single spot. Another problem would be their low reproduction rate. A humpback whale's pregnancy for example is 11 months. They usually start having calves around the age of 12-13 (sexual maturity between 7-8 years). The most female have one calf every other year, tho there are some that have a calf per year. Compare that to the ordinary cow: 2 years until sexual maturity, 9 months gestation period... or the pig: sexual maturity after 5-6 months, gestation period of roughly 4 months. Okay, that's maybe something that can be solved through breedings... but it's definitely a point to consider.

But whales are probably very much comparable to bovine, at least to some point... so domesticated whales could work pretty well.

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I live with 2 dog trainers. To quote them "You can train anything". They've trained chickens. They've trained rabbits. They've trained seagulls.

The general guide is:

  1. Encourage a behaviour to occur.
  2. When it occurs, give food.
  3. Repeat.

That's it!

  • If you're too slow giving food or the behaviour is too complex to distract with incoming food, associate a signal with food by repeating "signal -> food" over and over with longer delays between signal and food, then give the signal when they do the desired behaviour. Signals can be sounds or visuals. Dog trainers often use clickers.
  • If the behaviour is too complex, break it up into parts and train each part individually.
  • Don't use negative techniques. When they do something you don't want, ignore them. Negative training works quite well on marine animals for a short period of time, until it doesn't

Humans using this technique have trained:

So yes, since your mermaids have human intelligence, your mermaids can train a whale to do what you need in return for food. Full domestication will naturally follow - as they learn doing your mermaids bidding is an easier way to get food than hunting for themselves.

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    $\begingroup$ Train is a world of difference from domesticate. Also notice everything they trained are significantly smaller than them three are already domesticated and the last is acclimated to humans. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Apr 28 at 4:20
  • $\begingroup$ @John Once trained, domestication naturally follows. If getting food from people for doing a task is easier than hunting, and you keep it up for a few generations, domestication accomplished. $\endgroup$
    – Ash
    Apr 28 at 5:03
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    $\begingroup$ No it really doesn't, we can train tigers we never domesticated them. We can train elephants we never domesticated them. the list goes on and on. Just because you can train something does not mean you can domesticate them. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Apr 28 at 12:08

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