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

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

COVID-19. (Image courtesy CDC)
81 new cases of COVID-19 detected in Interior Health Friday

One additional staff member at Kelowna long-term care home tests positive, no new deaths

Eight players aged 19 and 20 on the Kimberley Dynamiters are currently unable to practice with the team due to new COVID-19 restrictions. Paul Rodgers file.
KIJHL games postponed until December 31

Dynamiters coach reacts to new restrictions

The 2020 Wasa Triathlon was cancelled. Above, the bike portion of the 2019 event. Bulletin file
Gerick Sports Wasa Triathlon committee is going ahead with planning 2021 event

Lots of uncertainty, but the committee has decided its too early to cancel

Dr. Albert de Villiers, Chief Medical Health Officer for the Interior Health Authority. (Contributed)
‘People need to start listening’: IH top doc combats COVID-19 misconceptions

Dr. Albert de Villiers says light at the end of the tunnel will grow in step with people’s adherence to PHO guidance

(File)
One death and 82 new cases of COVID-19 in Interior Health

1,981 total cases, 609 are active and those individuals are on isolation

Pickleball game in Vancouver on Sunday, November 8, 2020. B.C.’s public health restrictions for COVID-19 have been extended to adult team sports, indoors and outside. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
711 more COVID-19 cases detected in B.C. Friday

‘Virus is not letting up and neither can we’

Demonstrators, organized by the Public Fishery Alliance, outside the downtown Vancouver offices of Fisheries and Oceans Canada July 6 demand the marking of all hatchery chinook to allow for a sustainable public fishery while wild stocks recover. (Public Fishery Alliance Facebook photo)
Angry B.C. anglers see petition tabled in House of Commons

Salmon fishers demand better access to the healthy stocks in the public fishery

(Hotel Zed/Flytographer)
B.C. hotel grants couple 18 years of free stays after making baby on Valentines Day

Hotel Zed has announced a Kelowna couple has received free Valentines Day stays for next 18 years

Farmers raise slogans during a protest on a highway at the Delhi-Haryana state border, India, Thursday, Dec. 3, 2020. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau rejected the diplomatic scolding Canada’s envoy to India received on Friday for his recent comments in support of protesting Indian farmers. Tens of thousands of farmers have descended upon the borders of New Delhi to protest new farming laws that they say will open them to corporate exploitation. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Manish Swarup
Trudeau brushes off India’s criticism for standing with farmers in anti-Modi protests

The High Commission of India in Ottawa had no comment when contacted Friday

Nurse Kath Olmstead prepares a shot as the world’s biggest study of a possible COVID-19 vaccine, developed by the National Institutes of Health and Moderna Inc., gets underway Monday, July 27, 2020, in Binghamton, N.Y. U.S. biotech firm Moderna says its vaccine is showing signs of producing lasting immunity to COVID-19, and that it will have as many as many as 125 million doses available by the end of March. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Hans Pennink
Canada orders more COVID vaccines, refines advice on first doses as cases reach 400K

Canada recorded its 300,000th case of COVID-19 on Nov. 16

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good
Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

Apartments are seen lit up in downtown Vancouver as people are encouraged to stay home during the global COVID-19 pandemic on Thursday, Dec. 3, 2020. British Columbia’s deputy provincial health officer says provincewide data show the most important area B.C. must tackle in its response to the COVID-19 pandemic is health inequity. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Marissa Tiel
Age, income among top factors affecting well-being during pandemic, B.C. survey shows

Among respondents earning $20,000 a year or less, more than 41 per cent reported concern about food insecurity

Interior Health says Salmo’s COVID-19 cases have been contained. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Interior Health: Salmo’s COVID-19 cases are contained

Every person who tested positive has recovered

Victoria-based driving instructors are concerned for their own and the community’s safety with the continued number of residents from COVID hotspots in the Lower Mainland coming to the city to take their driving road tests. (Black Press Media file photo)
Students from COVID hotspots travel to Vancouver Island for driving tests

Union leader calls on government to institute stronger travel ban

Most Read