Study Shows Whales and Dolphins Live Human-Like Lives Thanks to Their Big Brains

Life is not so different beneath the ocean waves. Bottlenose dolphins use simple tools, orcas call each other by name, and sperm whales talk in local dialects. Many cetaceans live in tight-knit groups and spend a good deal of time at play.

That much scientists know. But in a new study, researchers compiled a list of the rich behaviours spotted in 90 different species of dolphins, whales and porpoises, and found that the bigger the species’ brain, the more complex – indeed, the more “human-like” – their lives are likely to be.

This suggests that the “cultural brain hypothesis” – the theory that suggests our intelligence developed as a way of coping with large and complex social groups – may apply to whales and dolphins, as well as humans.

Writing in the journal, Nature Ecology and Evolution, the researchers claim that complex social and cultural characteristics, such as hunting together, developing regional dialects and learning from observation, are linked to the expansion of the animals’ brains – a process known as encephalisation.

Photo: Alexander Vasenin/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

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