Monday, November 27, 2006

Smartass Whales

I was perusing Reuters for the latest news in politics, when I came upon an article about Humpback whales suggesting these creatures are more intelligent than we previously believed.

What, did you think I was all about politics, and nothing else? For shame!

Anyway, the article is incredibly interesting:
Humpback whales have a type of brain cell seen only in humans, the great apes, and other cetaceans such as dolphins, U.S. researchers reported on Monday.

This might mean such whales are more intelligent than they have been given credit for, and suggests the basis for complex brains either evolved more than once, or has gone unused by most species of animals, the researchers said.

The finding may help explain some of the behaviors seen in whales, such as intricate communication skills, the formation of alliances, cooperation, cultural transmission and tool usage, the researchers report in The Anatomical Record.

If this is true, it means we're going to have to rethink how we treat these creatures. But this fascinating revelation doesn't end with humpbacks:

The researches found spindle neurons in the same location in toothed whales with the largest brains, which the researchers said suggests that they may be related to brain size. Toothed whales such as orcas are generally considered more intelligent than baleen whales such as humpbacks and blue whales, which filter water for their food.

If this is so, then the orca and other toothed whales -- which typically have to go to greater lengths to hunt for food -- may be a bit more intelligent due to necessity. But that's not all:

Spindle neurons probably first appeared in the common ancestor of hominids, humans and great apes about 15 million years ago, the researchers said -- they are not seen in lesser apes or monkeys.

In cetaceans they would have evolved earlier, possibly as early as 30 million years ago, the researchers said.

Either the spindle neurons were only kept in the animals with the largest brains or they evolved several times independently, the researchers said.

"In spite of the relative scarcity of information on many cetacean species, it is important to note in this context that sperm whales, killer whales, and certainly humpback whales, exhibit complex social patterns that included intricate communication skills, coalition-formation, cooperation, cultural transmission and tool usage," the researchers wrote.

Wow. I mean, do you realize the implications of this? I do. And I've got to tell you, while I am pleased and fascinated I think this kind of knocks me off my pedestal. If whales' social development and comminication skills predate ours by millions of years, it means we're not the only species on this planet capable of complex, intelligent behavior. It means we're hunting and polluting out of existence another sentient species. Oone just as intelligent as ours, if not more so.

Makes you think, doesn't it?

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