We have always supposed that us humans are the most intelligent creatures to rule the Earth, because our brains are the best and the biggest, which somehow, automatically gives us the right to be the kings and queens of everything—according to human logic, of course. It turns out, however, that this is certainly not true—we’re not the mammals with the biggest brain, and we might not be the most intelligent, either.
You will probably say, well of course, look at how big whales are, but we don’t beat a whale’s brain even by comparing brain size in proportion to body size. Now knowing this, your next question might be, so, how intelligent are whales? And are they really more intelligent than us humans? Well, it depends on how you measure said intelligence.
Most of the research on whale intelligence comes from studying dolphins, since they belong to the same cetacean family and share many physiological traits.
But first, let’s go back to humans again for a moment. If we look at the evolution humanity went through, we can see that in only 3 million years, we went from Lucy’s (Australopithecus afarensis) 380 cubic centimeter brain to the Homo sapiens’ 1.300 cubic centimeter brain. Now, the whale’s closest ancestor is the hippopotamus, and if going from dwelling in bogs to a fully aquatic life isn’t a great example of a great evolution, I don’t know what is.
Taking the comparison a bit further, researchers have discovered that even though whales have less neocortical neurons than humans, they have an exceedingly higher number of glial cells, which are an important aid when it comes to information processing. Does this mean that whales aren’t more intelligent than humans in the end? Maybe it simply isn’t a question of higher of lower intelligence, but a matter of perceiving the world differently. Continuing on the neuron line, whales also have spindle cells, a specific type of neuron that suggests complex intelligence, and are also related to empathy and emotions. Before finding them in whales, they were only found in apes, elephants and humans.
Another proof of their unique intelligence is that whales do have a highly complex vocal language. These intricate and elaborate melodies can be heard by whales many miles apart, repeated in perfect harmony, without losing a beat even if the melody is changed. Other species have high-pitched clicks and whistles, so distinct amongst each animal that they can detect which one is currently speaking, even when it’s in a large pod where many are communicating at the same time. Whale language is truly fascinating and has interested scientists for many years—especially whale songs because of their similarities with human music.
And as if that wasn’t enough, whales are also able to pass their knowledge between individuals of the same species, sometimes even between generations. Be it migratory routes, predatory abilities or awareness of dangers—this type of shared consciousness and learning ability is something else to add to the pile of things that makes whales the great apes of the ocean, so to speak.
If all of this did not convince you, you may want to take a look at how whales go hunting. Strategic and thought out planning with great social cooperation, they are the greatest predators, and the prey never escapes. Simply tune in to Invasion of the Killer Whales, premiering in December on NatGeo!