Whales and dolphins have complex relationships and call each other by name

A major new study links the complexity of cetacean culture and behavior to brain size, revealing amazing things about the mammals along the way.

Humans are a funny bunch. We have firmly placed ourselves at the top of the “best species” list, even though we know so little about the unique intelligence and talents of so many other animals. Since we only measure other species’ brains and behaviors relative to our own, of course they are going to come out as the less accomplished. It would be like octopuses thinking that humans are inferior because we can’t taste with our many arms or change our skin in seconds for camouflage. (And you know that octopuses probably do secretly judge us for that.)

Which brings us to whales, dolphins, and porpoises – the cetacenas. We know that they are smart “for animals,” but we still give them short shrift. Maybe if they had picked up English by now we’d have more respect.

But the thing is, they don’t need English … because they already have a language of their own! And now a major study, published in Nature Ecology & Evolution, reveals many other remarkable things that cetaceans have figured out as well.

The research was a collaboration between scientists from The University of Manchester, The University of British Columbia, The London School of Economics and Political Science and Stanford University; it was the first of its kind to create a dataset of cetacean brain size and social behaviors. In total, they collected information on 90 different species of dolphins, whales, and porpoises.

The researchers found “overwhelming evidence” that these creatures have sophisticated social and cooperative behavior traits, similar to many found in human culture.

According to the the University of Manchester, the long list of behavioral similarities includes:

  • 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, says: "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."

"That means the apparent co-evolution of brains, social structure, and behavioural richness of marine mammals provides a unique and striking parallel to the large brains and hyper-sociality of humans and other primates on land. Unfortunately, they won't ever mimic our great metropolises and technologies because they didn't evolve opposable thumbs."

Now if that were my quote, I would have excluded the “unfortunately” in that last sentence – maybe not having evolved opposable thumbs isn’t such a misfortune. I mean, sure, Paris is grand and iPhones are nifty, but I'd think that thriving in a natural marine environment is better than what we “smart” humans are doing on terra firma; our fancy thumbs are getting us in quite a pickle. Maybe in the end, it’s the dolphins and whales and porpoises who are the smarter animals after all! And they're probably talking about it as we speak.

Tags: Animals | Oceans

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