Whales & Dolphins Have Rich, ‘Human-Like’ Societies, Study Finds

(CN) – In Douglas Adams’ novel “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” dolphins are said to be smarter than humans – a point that may be closer to the truth than most people think, according to a new study published Monday in Nature Ecology & Evolution.

Researchers from the United States, Canada and Britain studied marine mammals with large brains, such as dolphins and whales. They found humanlike societies of complex and close-knit social groups and creatures that elaborately talk to each other, some possessing regional dialects similar to humans.

The study looked at characteristics the marine mammals shared with other big-brained creatures such as humans and primates, also called encephalisation.

Researchers from Stanford University, the University of Manchester, the University of British Columbia and the London School of Economics and Political Science found a stunning collection of behaviors that mirrored humans, including complex communication, alliance relationships and cooperative hunting, social play and signature whistles that denote name recognition.

Scientists have known about the complex communication dolphins and whales have with each other, but have stopped short of calling such communication language. A Russian study published in 2016 claimed to have recorded conversations between two bottlenose dolphins that demonstrated sentence structure, but many dolphin experts questioned the results.

In the study published Monday, the researchers call the dolphin communication “complex,” but do not refer to it as a language.

Susanne Shultz, study co-author, said that the evolution of the brain in marine mammals gives us a unique view of the idea of intelligence.

“As humans, our ability to socially interact and cultivate relationships has allowed us to colonize almost every ecosystem and environment on the planet,” Shultz said in a statement. “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 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.

“Unfortunately, they won’t ever mimic our great metropolises and technologies because they didn’t evolve opposable thumbs.”

The study was used to test both the social brain and cultural brain hypotheses that larger brains evolve as a result of complex social environments. The researchers studied 90 different species of dolphins, porpoises and whales for the paper.

“This research isn’t just about looking at the intelligence of whales and dolphins, it also has important anthropological ramifications as well,” said co-author Michael Muthukrishna. “In order to move toward a more general theory of human behavior, we need to understand what makes humans so different from other animals. And to do this, we need a control group. Compared to primates, cetaceans are a more ‘alien’ control group.”


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