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The social and cultural roots of whale and dolphin brains

Fox, Kieran C. R., Muthukrishna, Michael and Shultz, Susanne (2017) The social and cultural roots of whale and dolphin brains. Nature Ecology and Evolution, 1 (11). pp. 1699-1705. ISSN 2397-334X

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Identification Number: 10.1038/s41559-017-0336-y


Encephalization, or brain expansion, underpins humans’ sophisticated social cognition, including language, joint attention, shared goals, teaching, consensus decision-making and empathy. These abilities promote and stabilize cooperative social interactions, and have allowed us to create a ‘cognitive’ or ‘cultural’ niche and colonize almost every terrestrial ecosystem. Cetaceans (whales and dolphins) also have exceptionally large and anatomically sophisticated brains. Here, by evaluating a comprehensive database of brain size, social structures and cultural behaviours across cetacean species, we ask whether cetacean brains are similarly associated with a marine cultural niche. We show that cetacean encephalization is predicted by both social structure and by a quadratic relationship with group size. Moreover, brain size predicts the breadth of social and cultural behaviours, as well as ecological factors (diversity of prey types and to a lesser extent latitudinal range). The apparent coevolution of brains, social structure and behavioural richness of marine mammals provides a unique and striking parallel to the large brains and hyper-sociality of humans and other primates. Our results suggest that cetacean social cognition might similarly have arisen to provide the capacity to learn and use a diverse set of behavioural strategies in response to the challenges of social living.

Item Type: Article
Official URL:
Additional Information: © 2017 Nature Publishing Group
Divisions: Psychological and Behavioural Science
Subjects: B Philosophy. Psychology. Religion > BF Psychology
Q Science > QL Zoology
Sets: Departments > Psychological and Behavioural Science
Date Deposited: 09 Nov 2017 16:09
Last Modified: 20 Jun 2020 02:36
Projects: UF110641
Funders: Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, Royal Society

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