Whales and dolphins have long been known to be smart animals. Some of these oceanic mammals can communicate with each other using a special language, and some, like bottlenose dolphins, even use simple tools. They are almost human-like in their intelligence at times. And a new study, published in the journal Nature and Ecology, shows just how similar they are to humans in some surprising ways.
This research, which looked at 90 different species of whales and dolphins, looked at the societies formed by these sea creatures and found that they share some similarities to human societies. Specifically, it considered whether the “social brain hypothesis” applied to these animals, and found that it did. This hypothesis asserts that intelligence develops in animals—like humans—as a way to cope with complex social groups.
Much like human beings, dolphins and whales live with family and friends in close-knit groups. They communicate with each other, and some have even developed recognizable regional dialects in their languages. Scientists have also found that some of these animals have signature whistles, which they think might represent “names” of their fellow creatures and can be used to call out for some specific individual in the group.
Dolphins and whales also pass collected knowledge down from generation to generation, just like human societies do. This is evidence of culture, since these skills are not instincts that are passed down via genes. These animals also pool their knowledge and skills and cooperate with each other to accomplish common goals, such as when they hunt together in groups. They will even cooperate with other species, such as humans.
Just as humans and other primates do, whales and dolphins also engage in play with each other. They will also share childcare duties amongst the group, with adult members taking care of infants that are not their own.
This is the first study that has used the social brain hypothesis to study the societies of marine mammals. The results of the study appear to confirm the idea that brain size in animals is linked with societal and cultural characteristics. Of course, this does not mean that whales and dolphins will someday build megacities and start writing books. There are still many differences between their brains and ours. But it does show that humans are not the only animal group capable of forming a complex society and developing meaningful relationships. If they had opposable thumbs, there might be much more that sea mammals would be able to do.