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Marine Mammals' Larger Brains Led to 'Human-Like' Cultures and Societies

A new study links the 'human-like' behavior and culture of marine mammals to the size of their brains. Image credit: Jay Ebberly/Flickr

Researchers from The University of Manchester, The University of British Columbia, Canada, The London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) and Stanford University, United States, have linked the 'human-like' tendencies of marine mammals to the size of their brains.

The study is first of its kind to create a large dataset of cetacean brain size and social behaviours. The team compiled information on 90 different species of dolphins, whales, and porpoises. It found overwhelming evidence that Cetaceans have sophisticated social and cooperative behaviour traits, similar to many found in human culture.

The similarities between Cetaceans and humans are numerous:

  • complex alliance relationships - working together for mutual benefit
  • social transfer of hunting techniques - teaching how to hunt and using tools
  • cooperative hunting
  • complex vocalizations, including regional group dialects - 'talking' to each other
  • vocal mimicry and 'signature whistles' unique to individuals - using 'name' recognition
  • interspecific cooperation with humans and other species - working with different species
  • alloparenting - looking after youngsters that aren't their own

social play

Dr Susanne Shultz, an evolutionary biologist in Manchester's School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, said: "As humans, our ability to socially interact and cultivate relationships has allowed us to colonise almost every ecosystem and environment on the planet. We know whales and dolphins also have exceptionally large and anatomically sophisticated brains and, therefore, have created a similar marine based culture."

But the numerous similarities do not discount the differences:

Dr Kieran Fox, a neuroscientist at Stanford University, added: "Cetaceans have many complex social behaviours 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 behaviours?"

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