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

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

Marine biologist Rick Harbo pulls a lid from the Ladysmith harbour, which he uses to monitor the presence of native and non-native species in the Ladysmith harbour. (Cole Schisler photo)
Unidentified sponge may be the latest marine species invading Ladysmith Harbour

Marine biologist finding dozens of alien species in warm-water harbour, none of them threatening

More and more graffiti has appeared in Ladysmith’s downtown core during the pandemic. (Cole Schisler photo)
Council creates rebate program to encourage graffiti clean up

Property owners can receive up to $50 to help fund graffiti removal

Rick Ruppenthal of Saltair will host a 12-hour talk-a-thon Friday, June 18 over Facebook live. (Photo submitted)
Talk-a-thon to focus on men’s mental health issues

Saltair man spearheading a campaign to generate more conversation during fundraiser

(File photo)
Poverty reduction survey identifies 10 poverty themes

Poverty reduction plan will be finalized in July 2021

Maxwell Johnson is seen in Bella Bella, B.C., in an undated photo. The Indigenous man from British Columbia has filed complaints with the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal and the Canadian Human Rights Commission after he and his granddaughter were handcuffed when they tried to open a bank account. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Heiltsuk Nation, Damien Gillis, *MANDATORY CREDIT*
VIDEO: Chiefs join human rights case of Indigenous man handcuffed by police in B.C. bank

Maxwell Johnson said he wants change, not just words, from Vancouver police

Two ambulances and a medevac helicopter are on scene at Taylor River Flats rest area on Highway 4 due to a serious motor vehicle incident. (PHOTO COURTESY MAGGIE BROWN)
Highway 4 reopens between Port Alberni and Tofino

Multi-vehicle accident temporarily closed highway in both directions

Tk’emlups te Secwepemc Chief Rosanne Casimir stands outside the former Kamloops Indian Residential School after speaking to reporters, in Kamloops, B.C., on Friday, June 4, 2021.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Kamloops chief says more unmarked graves will be found across Canada

Chief Rosanne Casimir told a virtual news conference the nation expects to release a report at the end of June

A woman wears a vaccinated sticker after receiving a COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination clinic run by Vancouver Coastal Health, in Richmond, B.C., Saturday, April 10, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
B.C. ranks among highest in world in COVID-19 first-dose shots: health officials

More than 76% of eligible people have received their 1st shot

A screenshot of the First Peoples Cultural Councils First Peoples’ Map. (First Peoples Cultural Council)
Online resource blends B.C.-Alberta’s Indigenous languages, art and culture

Advisor says initiative supports the urgent need to preserve Indigenous languages

An artists conception of the new terminal building at the Pitt Meadows Regional Airport.
Air travel taking off in B.C., but lack of traffic controllers a sky-high concern

There will be demand for more air traffic controllers: Miller

Canadian Armed Forces experts are on their way to North Vancouver after a local homeowner expressed worry about a military artifact he recently purchased. (Twitter DNV Fire and Rescue)
Military called in to deal with antique ‘shell’ at North Vancouver home

‘The person somehow purchased a bombshell innocently believing it was an out-of-commission military artifact’

Amy Kobelt and Tony Cruz have set their wedding date for February, hoping that more COVID-19 restrictions will have lifted. (The Macleans)
B.C. couples ‘gambling’ on whether COVID rules will let them dance at their wedding

Amy Kobelt and Tony Cruz pushed back their wedding in hopes of being able to celebrate it without the constraints of COVID-19

Most Read