Featured Image Credit: sci-news.com
By: Laura O’Brien
Cetaceans (a group consisting of whales, dolphins, and porpoises) are known for their impressive intelligence. In fact, their cognitive abilities have prompted quite a bit of scientific research in hopes of learning more about these mysterious creatures. Certain activities that cetaceans are known to perform, such as using tools, speaking in different dialects, and even naming each other, seem very human-like. Other human-like behaviors cetaceans have been spotted doing include raising unrelated offspring and learning socially through observation. Recent research seems to suggest that the larger the brains of a cetacean species are, the more intelligent the animals tend to be; and therefore, the more human-like lifestyles they tend to have.
A biologist at the University of St. Andrews named Luke Rendell clarified that the intelligence scientists have measured in different cetaceans is not necessarily an indication that one species is better or more fit for its environment than another. He explained, “there is a risk of sounding like there is a single train line, with humans at the final station and other animals on their way of getting there. The truth is that every animal responds to their own evolutionary pressures”.
In fact, scientific findings have led to the cultural brain hypothesis, which suggests that larger and more complex social structures have prompted certain species to evolve with larger brains in response to their social dynamic. Scientists have even found that the brains of cetaceans which live solitary lives or live in small groups, tend to be smaller than the brains of animals in large groups. This hypothesis explains the intelligence of not only dolphins and whales, but primates as well.
Michael Muthukrishna, an economic psychologist at the London School of Economics pointed out that research of these species, whose practices are so similar to our own despite having taken an extremely different evolutionary path, could help us gain an understanding of our own intelligence, and evolutionary forces as well. Muthukrishna acknowledged the difficulties researchers experience both logistically and financially when trying to produce research on underwater mammals, but we believe the rewards are certainly worth it. He also addressed the infamous conundrum in measuring and understanding different kinds of intelligence by saying, “each environment presents a different set of challenges for an animal. When you are above water, you learn how to tackle fire, for example. As smart as whales are, they will never learn to light a spark”. The differences in what types intelligence and skills are useful and necessary for humans versus underwater creatures may actually allow researchers to create studies which could help us gain a whole new understanding of intelligence; all thanks to some special marine mammals.
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