Fascinating Animals 1: Whales

3 12 2009

Two majestic marine mammals

Greetings, faithful blog readers!  My name is Sam and I’m going to take you on a fascinating tour of the animal kingdom over my next few posts, as well as whatever other scientific topics strike my fancy.  Today, I’d like to talk about our fishy friends, the whales (not actually fish, though we’re sure you knew that), and the fascinating topic of animal intelligence.

Everyone knows that the dolphins at SeaWorld can learn tricks, but the assumed limits of whale intelligence are being shattered regularly.  Dolphins are capable of recognizing their own reflections (a sign of self-awareness), singing the “Batman” theme song (reproducing rhythm and pitch) and most recently, hunting with sponges to protect their noses (tool usage).  Clearly, the cognitive ability of our marine amigos is not to be underestimated!


But let’s backtrack for a second, and understand what’s going on inside a whale’s head.  Toothed whales – like sperm whales, orcas and dolphins- use echolocation as one means to find food in their habitat.  Echolocation is a process by which sounds generated by the animal are sent out and the returning echoes allow the animal to interpret a three-dimensional rendering of their surroundings.  This is particularly useful in the water, where there may be little light, and sound travels faster than in the air.  In fact, the sounds generated by the sperm whale are the loudest sounds made by any animal on the planet.

Sound is passed through the phonic lips and modulated by the melon, a fatty organ (red lines). Incoming sounds (green) are passed through the lower jaw and transmitted to the ear.

The implications of this are astounding: a whale’s brain can interpret three-dimensional images of its surroundings.  Really, “images” isn’t even the right word for this ability, because “images” implies two-dimensions; whales are processing their environment as a fully-rendered space in a way that we cannot conceive.  Incredible!

This brings me to my main point: the whale brain. The sperm whale has the largest brain of any known animal, modern or extinct: it weighs nearly 20 pounds.  For reference, this is about the weight of a car tire.  That’s a big brain!  The zombies would have a feast.  Dolphins have one the highest brain size to body ratios outside of humans, which is a particularly strong indicator of intelligence.  They also exhibit immense problem-solving abilities, and are capable of reasoning, planning, thinking abstractly and learning from experience.

Whales undoubtedly have culture, as well.  They travel in nomadic pods, and because they have no hands and spend their lives constantly swimming, they have no permanent possessions or residences.  Thus, their social groups are the only consistent feature in their lives.  The parts of dolphin brains that are involved in processing social relationships and emotions are extraordinarily complex.  Two whale populations, while genetically similar, may exhibit vastly different behaviors within their groups and in how they interact with their environments.  For example, different pods of genetically similar orcas may subsist on different diets or use a different set of sounds to communicate with one another.  Because of the uniqueness of a whale’s lifestyle and brain, their intelligence and relationships may be inconceivably distinct from our own – more on this below!

What could this benthic behemoth be thinking about?

For contextualization, it is worth noting that whales are particularly far removed from primates in the evolutionary scheme of things.  Their brains are very different from ours, and as a species, acquired their intelligence along a different course of environmental pressures.  Their unique intelligence is actually older than our own – if aliens had come to earth before about 1.5 million years ago to communicate with the brainiest animals, they would have chosen dolphins, not apes.  Therefore, with cognitive abilities that have developed so independently and uniquely, it is difficult to even know what we should be testing for when we measure cetacean intellect, as accurate markers for what humans perceive as intelligence may actually have little bearing on marine mammal minds.

The social and intellectual abilities of whales is incredibly interesting, as it implies that as a species, we may be far less alone in the universe as intelligent life.  I wonder:  as whales transmit and process three-dimensional renderings directly into one another’s large brains what information could they be sharing?  Ocean maps?  Cultural practices?  The possibilities seem limitless.  This revelation also brings to light the horrifying implications of nearly hunting these creatures to extinction over the past few centuries.  Be sure to cherish our briny brothers!

And finally, dolphins have been used by militaries across the world for mine-deactivation, diver rescue and even, potentially, offensive purposes.  The Soviet dolphin hit squad was recently sold to Iran, undoubtedly marking the first animal mercenaries in history.  I’m not kidding.

Further Reading:

Dolphins and Singing: http://www.abc.net.au/science/news/stories/s1473208.htm

Dolphins and Tools: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/environment/article5439491.ece

Whales and Identity: http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2009/06/whalepeople/

Whale Culture: http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2009/06/whaleculture/

Orca Pods and Culture: http://www.orcanetwork.org/nathist/fins.html

Tree of Life of placental mammals, showing the distance between cetaceans and primates: http://tolweb.org/Eutheria/15997

Dolphin Mercenaries: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/world/middle_east/670551.stm




2 responses

20 02 2010

Fascinating! I love your posts! One that I’d also like to hear about is the intelligence of octopuses (octopi?). I’ve read that they have been known to break out of their aquariums and into others for food. This would make for an interesting post, seeing is they’re kinda creepy too…

24 02 2010
mary ann


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