A youngster on a Nootka Island Wilderness Lodge trip got his picture taken with a breaching whale on Sept. 16 on the west coast of Vancouver Island. Photo by Davis Rennie

Whales show brains, social interaction go together: study

The research, largely done at the UBC, shows similarities between whale and human evolution

The rich social interaction and highly evolved brains of some whales are linked in a kind of evolutionary feedback loop, a newly published paper suggests.

The research, largely done at the University of British Columbia, sheds new light on similarities between whale and human evolution.

“Similar pressures and possibilities in the environment can select for a similar outcome,” said Kieran Fox, now a postdoctoral student at California’s Stanford University and co-author of the new paper in Nature Ecology and Evolution.

Fox and his colleagues studied brain sizes and social behaviours of a wide variety of whale species.

They found that whales with the most complex forms of social interaction — which includes learning from elders, social hierarchies, co-operation and play — tend to live in mid-sized groups of between five and 20. In species such as orcas, individuals have extended one-on-one contact required to develop social behaviour.

“Orcas are in matrilineal family clans,” Fox said. ”These groups stay together, very tight-knit, through their whole lives.”

In addition, Fox found that whales with the largest “social repertoire” also have the largest and most developed brains relative to their bodies.

But which came first, the bigger brain or the richer relationships? Fox said his research suggests the two go hand in hand.

Learning beneficial new skills or social behaviours eventually requires a larger, more powerful brain. And a species that evolves a more powerful brain is better able to learn or develop relationships.

“That’s the theory to this extremely powerful driver of brain evolution — once it gets going, you get some brain tissue that supports (social skills), then these individuals are going to do really, really well, because social co-operation and learning are very powerful survival strategies.”

Fox calls the effect a positive feedback loop.

“Let’s say a random increase in brain size or complexity gives you a greater capacity for social co-operation. If these new social skills pay off, then natural selection will keep favouring expansion of this same brain area. The capacity for social skills and co-operation will expand in turn, and the cycle will repeat.

“What you’ll eventually expect to see is that species that have large, complex brains will also tend to possess a wider repertoire of social behaviours — and this is exactly what we found among the whales and dolphins.”

Humans are the classic example of how the link between powerful brains and rich, adaptive cultures can create a smashing evolutionary success. Fox said his research shows how the same process may be at work in a completely different environment and species.

Whales aren’t the only example of this kind of evolutionary strategy. Some primates and elephants also possess it, said Fox.

“A very different species in a totally different environment, diverging millions and millions of years ago, can nonetheless be selected for this very similar life strategy.”

What’s more, that strategy can be accomplished with very different types of brains. While whales lack the frontal lobes that humans rely on for most of their complex thinking, they have large and well-developed brain regions that don’t really have a human counterpart.

Some scientists still maintain that because whale brains are so different, they can’t be “intelligent.”

“To me, that’s foolish,” Fox said.

“It denies the very possibility that a different brain structure could give rise to similar complexity or social skills. I think the evidence clearly shows that’s possible.”

— Follow Bob Weber on Twitter at @row1960

Bob Weber, The Canadian Press

Just Posted

Fishing in Sylvan Lake: species in need of recovery this year

Current concern for Sylvan Lake is overharvest of Walleye and Northern Pike

Council highlights

Council to fund Rimbey Boys and Girls Club for $15,000

Burman U prof publishes international development book

The Development Trap: How Thinking Big Fails the Poor looks to challenge perceptions

Health Minister Sarah Hoffman discusses Community Paramedic Program

Hoffman was in Red Deer meeting with patients who have used the service

Man threatens to kill partner, kids, dog

This is a very serious offence: Judge

WATCH: Central Albertan receives award for aiding RCMP officer in arrest

Lonnie Amundson, rugby player, tackled a fleeing suspect to help ailing officer

‘When everybody leaves: Counselling key to help Humboldt move on after bus crash

Dealing with life after a tragedy can be the worst part following a loss

Half-naked shooter guns down four, runs away in Nashville Waffle House shooting

Nashville police say they are looking for Travis Reinking in connection with the shooting

Child’s body found in river downstream from where boy went missing during flood

Three-year-old Kaden Young was swept out of his mother’s arms in February

Austin Powers ‘Mini-Me’, Verne Troyer, dies at 49

Facebook page confirmed his death Saturday afternoon

Alberta man dead after snowmobile collision on B.C. mountain

The incident occurred on Boulder Mountain Friday morning

Speed Skating Canada fires coach Michael Crowe after investigation

Crowe was a coach on the American team from 1983 to 1991 and again from 1999 to 2006

5 things to know about the ongoing influx of asylum seekers in Canada

Number of illegal border crossings are up this year – as RCMP, military, politicians try to combat

WATCH: ‘Battle of the Badges’ event raises money for Humboldt Broncos

Red Deerians get together at charity hockey tournament April 20th at Servus Arena

Most Read