How did whales and dolphins have brains that put them safely in the upper echelon of the animal kingdom? A new study suggests that these sea creatures became as smart as they are today as a result of the “human-like” lives they live.
As explained by The Guardian, cetaceans such as dolphins and whales behave in many ways that can be described as human-like in nature. For example, orcas can “call each other by name,” while sperm whales are said to have a dialect of their own. Beyond what could be their own version of verbal skills, there are some species within the cetacean group, such as bottlenose dolphins, that are capable of using simple tools. As further explained by the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDC), these sea animals aren’t just capable of learning as individuals but are also able to impart their knowledge and newly-acquired problem-solving skills onto others.
In a new study, a team of scientists took stock of the aforementioned behaviors and others, studying 90 species of porpoises, whales, and dolphins, and concluding that examples of the species with bigger brains are capable of living more complex “human-like” lives than those with smaller brains. These findings suggest that humans aren’t the only creatures that the so-called “cultural brain hypothesis” applies to; this is a theory that suggests a creature’s intelligence can evolve based on how they deal with larger, more elaborate social groups.
The researchers attributed the growth of whales’ and dolphins’ brains to encephalization, a phenomenon where the brain expands when examples of a species hunt together, develop their own regional dialects, learn from observing things, and exhibit other complex social and cultural traits and behaviors. For example, dolphins were spotted assisting fishermen with their catches, playing with humpback whales, and emitting distinctive whistles to fill in for dolphins who weren’t up to the task for one reason or another. The Guardian noted that this is a sign dolphins might even be capable of performing another distinctively human behavior — gossiping.
Conversely, it was the cetaceans who were found alone or swimming in small groups that ended up having the smallest brains.
“The apparent co-evolution of brains, social structure, and behavioral richness of marine mammals provides a unique and striking parallel to the large brains and hyper-sociality of humans and other primates on land,” said University of Manchester evolutionary biologist Susanne Schultz, lead author of the study, in a statement quoted by Quartz.
Study co-author Michael Muthukrishna, an economic psychologist at the London School of Economics, added that his team’s study on whale and dolphin brain growth is proof that the saying “it takes a village to raise a child” is true not only in humans but also in cetaceans.
Although the study does suggest that there are some compelling similarities between cetaceans and humans, one expert warned against making animals appear anthropomorphic, or assigning human-like qualities to them. Speaking to The Guardian, University of St. Andrews biologist Luke Rendell, who was not involved in the research, said that all animals have their own set of evolutionary pressures they respond to, meaning it wouldn’t be fair to assume that humans are at the “final station” of a hypothetical train line, with other animals making their way there.
For their part, the researchers acknowledged that it is indeed risky to compare humans to other animals, but stressed that the cultural-brain hypothesis is valid in both primates and cetaceans. They also added that whales and dolphins, despite their big brains and certain human-like qualities, will always have physical limitations that set them apart from humankind.
“Unfortunately, they won’t ever mimic our great metropolises and technologies because they didn’t evolve opposable thumbs,” Schultz said in an interview with Quartz.
[Featured Image by Normana Karia/Shutterstock]