Whales and dolphins have rich ‘human-like’ cultures and societies

University of Manchester
31-OCT-2017 - Whales and dolphins live in tightly-knit social groups. They have complex relationships, talk to each other and have even regional dialects: much like human societies.

A major new study has linked the complexity of Cetacean culture and behaviour to the size of their brains. The research was a collaboration between scientists at The University of Manchester; The University of British Columbia, Canada; The London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE); and Stanford University, United States.

Ninety different species of dolphins, whales, and porpoises

Killer whaleThe study is first of its kind to create a large dataset of cetacean brain size and social behaviours. The team compiled information on ninety 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 study demonstrates that these societal and cultural characteristics are linked with brain size and brain expansion, also known as encephalisation.

The long list of behavioural similarities includes many traits shared with humans and other primates such as:

  • 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 
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Big brains but no hands - why dolphins won't ever build complex technology (Source: University of Manchester)

A striking parallel 

Dr Michael Muthukrishna, Assistant Professor of Economic Psychology at LSE, added: “This research isn’t just about looking at the intelligence of whales and dolphins, it also has important anthropological ramifications as well. In order to move toward a more general theory of human behaviour, 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.” 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?”

This study is published in the scientific journal Nature Ecology and Evolution.

Text and video: University of Manchester
Photos: Pixabay.com