Whales and dolphins are increasingly threatened by fishing activities, environmental noise, and other factors. If we don’t take a stand to conserve these creatures, we could end up wiping out two other species with high intelligence and culture.
A recent study published in Nature Ecology & Evolution shows that cetaceans (whales and dolphins) live in tight-knit social groups, talk to each other, have complex relationships, and even have regional dialects.
The study links the complexity of whales’ and dolphins’ culture with the size of their brains.
Researchers from the University of Manchester in England, the University of British Columbia, the London School of Economics and Political Science, and Stanford University teamed up to create a large dataset of cetacean brain size and social behaviors.
They compiled information on 90 different species of whales, porpoises, and dolphins. What they found was a massive pile of evidence that cetaceans have social and cooperative behavior traits similar to those found in human societies. The study also showed that these characteristics are linked with encephalization—brain size and brain expansion.
Some of the behavioral similarities they found between cetaceans and humans and other primates include:
- They form complex alliance relationships. That is, they work together for mutual benefit.
- They teach one another how to hunt and use tools, also known as social transfer of hunting techniques.
- They hunt cooperatively.
- They “talk” to one another using a series of complex vocalizations, and even have regional group dialects to their language.
- They use “name” recognition. That is, they have “signature whistles” unique to individual members of the pod.
- They work cooperatively with humans and other species.
- They look after young members of their pods that aren’t their own—a phenomenon known in science as alloparenting.
- And, of course, they’re well known to enjoy social play.
Manchester University evolutionary biologist Dr. Susanne Shultz said, “We know whales and dolphins…have exceptionally large and anatomically sophisticated brains, and therefore have created a marine-based culture [similar to that of human society]. That means 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.”
However, Dr. Shultz added, “they won’t ever mimic our great metropolises and technologies because they didn’t evolve opposable thumbs.”
Dr. Kieran Fox, a neuroscientist at Stanford, said, “Cetaceans have many complex social behaviors that are similar to humans and other primates. They, however, have different brain structures from us, leading some researchers to argue that whales and dolphins could not achieve higher cognitive and social skills. I think our research shows that this is clearly not the case. Instead, a new question emerges: how can very diverse patterns of brain structure in very different species nonetheless give rise to highly similar cognitive and social behaviors?”