Dolphins, whales, and porpoises live “human-like” lives, and it’s all thanks to their big, expansive brains. As scientists report in a new international study, the sophisticated, cooperative behavior of these animals contributes to a rich marine culture that’s uncannily similar to ours. This is because both cetaceans and humans have benefitted from the process of encephalization — an increase in the complexity and size of the brain driven by evolution.

The paper, published Monday in Natural Ecology and Evolution, is the first to examine cetacean brain size and social behaviors at such a large scale. Gathering data on 90 different species of dolphins, whales, and porpoises, they established that the sea mammals shared many behavioral similarities with humans and other primates, including a proclivity for collaborative work, teaching, chatting, and gossip.

The expansiveness of marine culture, they write, can be explained by the social brain hypothesis and the cultural brain hypothesis — evolutionary theories that say intelligent brains emerged as a response to complex social environments.

Whales exist in complex social groups.

“This means the apparent co-evolution of brains, social structure, and behavioral richness of marine mammals provides a unique and striking parallel to the large brains and hyper-sociality of humans other primates on land,” co-author and evolutionary biologist Susanne Shutlz, Ph.D., explained in a statement.

“Unfortunately, they won’t ever mimic our great metropolises and technologies because they didn’t evolve opposable thumbs.”

While no hands means dolphins and whales likely won’t ever develop complex societies like ours, that doesn’t mean that their social relationships are any less complex than humans. The scientists describe their habits as “highly similar” to our own — which is an additionally novel fact because they have a different brain structure than humans. This difference is a key next step to this research: Discovering why cetaceans and humans can have such similar cognitive and social behavior while having very different brains.


“This research isn’t just about looking at the intelligence of whales and dolphins, it also has important anthropological ramifications as well,” co-author Michael Muthurkrishna, Ph.D. explains. “In order to move toward a more general theory of human behavior, we need to understand what makes humans so different from other animals.”

Cetaceans may be able to help explain that difference, and subsequently, our own development of intellect. While we may have one up on dolphins and whales with our opposable thumbs, they likely are still better at discussing hot goss.

If you liked this article, check out this video of the pangolin, the coolest animal you’ve never heard of.