Whales and dolphins have rich cultures – and could hold clues to what makes humans so advanced

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A pod of spinner dolphins in the Red Sea.
Alexander Vasenin/wikimedia, CC BY-SA

Susanne Shultz, University of Manchester

Humans are like no other species. We have constructed stratified states, colonised nearly every habitat on Earth and we’re now looking to move to other planets. In fact, we are so advanced that some of our innovations – such as fossil fuel technologies, intensive agriculture and weapons of mass destruction – may ultimately lead to our downfall.

Even our closest relatives, the primates, lack traits such as developed language, cumulative culture, music, symbolism and religion. Yet scientists still haven’t come to a consensus on why, when and how humans evolved these traits. But, luckily, there are non-human animals that have evolved societies and culture to some extent. My latest study, published in Nature Evolution & Ecology, investigates what cetaceans (whales and dolphins) can teach us about human evolution.

The reason it is so difficult to trace the origins of human traits is that social behaviour does not fossilise. It is therefore very hard to understand when and why cultural behaviour first arose in the human lineage. Material culture such as art, burial items, technologically sophisticated weapons and pottery is very rare in the archaeological record.

Previous research in primates has shown that a large primate brain is associated with larger social groups, cultural and behavioural richness, and learning ability. A larger brain is also tied to energy-rich diets, long life spans, extended juvenile periods and large bodies. But researchers trying to uncover whether each of these different traits are causes or consequences of large brains find themselves at odds with each other – often arguing at cross purposes.

One prevailing explanation is the social brain hypothesis, which argues that our minds and consequently our brains have evolved to solve the problems associated with living in an information rich, challenging and dynamic social environment. This comes with challenges such as competing for and allocating food and resources, coordinating behaviour, resolving conflicts and using information and innovations generated by others in the group.

Primates with large brains tend to be highly social animals.
Peter van der Sluijs/wikipedia, CC BY-SA

However, despite the abundance of evidence for a link between brain size and social skills, the arguments rumble on about the role of social living in cognitive evolution. Alternative theories suggest that primate brains have evolved in response to the complexity of forest environments – either in terms of searching for fruit or visually navigating a three dimensional world.

Under the sea

But it’s not just primates that live in rich social worlds. Insects, birds, elephants, horses and cetaceans do, too.

The latter are especially interesting as, not only do we know that they do interesting things, some live in multi-generational societies and they also have the largest brains in the animal kingdom. In addition, they do not eat fruit, nor do they live in forests. For that reason, we decided to evaluate the evidence for the social or cultural brain in cetaceans.

Another advantage with cetaceans is that research groups around the world have spent decades documenting and uncovering their social worlds. These include signature whistles, which appear to identify individual animals, cooperative hunting, complex songs and vocalisations, social play and social learning. We compiled all this information into a database and evaluated whether a species’ cultural richness is associated with its brain size and the kind of society they live in.

We found that species with larger brains live in more structured societies and have more cultural and learned behaviours. The group of species with the largest relative brain size are the large, whale-like dolphins. These include the false killer whale and pilot whale.

To illustrate the two ends of the spectrum, killer whales have cultural food preferences – where some populations prefer fish and other seals. They also hunt cooperatively and have matriarchs leading the group. Sperm whales have actual dialects, which means that different populations have distinct vocalisations. In contrast, some of the large baleen whales, which have smaller brains, eat krill rather than fish or other mammals, live fairly solitary lives and only come together for breeding seasons and at rich food sources.

The lives of beaked whales are still a big mystery.
Ted Cheeseman/wikipedia, CC BY-SA

We still have much to learn about these amazing creatures. Some of the species were not included in our analysis because we know so little about them. For example, there is a whole group of beaked whales with very large brains. However, because they dive and forage in deep water, sightings are rare and we know almost nothing about their behaviour and social relationships.

The ConversationNevertheless, this study certainly supports the idea that the richness of a species’ social world is predicted by their brain size. The fact that we’ve found it in an independent group so different from primates makes it all the more important.

Susanne Shultz, University Research Fellow, University of Manchester

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Ivory is out in the UK, as government moves to shutter legal trade

Why blaming ivory poaching on Boko Haram isn’t helpful

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Talking about ivory-funded terrorism overlooks the real sources of income for terror groups.
Author supplied

Mark Moritz, The Ohio State University; Alice B. Kelly Pennaz, University of California, Berkeley; Mouadjamou Ahmadou, and Paul Scholte, The Ohio State University

In 2016, as part of a ceremony in Cameroon’s capital Yaoundé, 2 000 elephant tusks were burned to demonstrate the country’s commitment to fight poaching and illegal trade in wildlife. US Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power gave a speech at the event linking poaching to terrorism.

The idea that terror groups like Boko Haram fund their activities through ivory poaching in Africa is a simple and compelling narrative. It has been adopted by governments, NGOs and media alike. But it is undermining wildlife conservation and human rights.

The problem is that such claims hinge on a single document which uses only one, unnamed source to estimate terrorist profits from ivory. The study hasn’t been backed up elsewhere.

Similarly, there is little evidence that terrorist activities are funded by wildlife poaching in Cameroon. We have studied wildlife conservation and pastoralism in the Far North Region of Cameroon in the last two decades. We have found that it is highly unlikely that Boko Haram is using ivory to survive financially. The elephant populations in the areas where Boko Haram operates are so low that this would be a faulty business plan to say the least. Only 246 elephants were counted in Waza Park in 2007.

Talking about ivory-funded terrorism overlooks the real sources of income for these groups. In Cameroon and Nigeria evidence shows that Boko Haram is using profits from cattle raids to support its activities. Boko Haram’s plunder of the countryside leaves cattle herders destitute.

The dangers of militarisation

The wrong focus has implications for conservation and human rights. Linking poachers and terrorists has led to a further militarisation of conservation areas in Africa. More guns and guards have been sent into parks to stop poachers.

The military approach has also led to serious human rights violations. These take the form of shoot-on-sight policies and other violent tactics carried out against local populations. Law enforcement in protected areas is important for controlling poaching and terrorism alike but it is not a perfect solution.

And wildlife conservation can suffer if well armed but underpaid park guards turn to poaching themselves.

It would be more helpful if properly paid and trained people provided security across the region rather than just in protected areas.

Consequences of the wrong connection

Ignoring the fact that cattle, not ivory, may be fuelling terrorism in places like Cameroon does a disservice to pastoralists. While livestock may compete with wildlife when pastoralists take refuge inside better-protected areas like parks, they do so only because their livelihoods are at risk.

Mistaking the true source of income for terrorist groups also means that their violent activities continue.

Finally, it diverts attention from corrupt conservation and government officials who may be complicit in poaching.

Of course, this is not to say that poaching is not happening. The dramatic declines in elephant populations in Cameroon and elsewhere in Africa indicate otherwise. The question is who is doing the poaching and why.

We challenge governments and organisations interested in wildlife, security and human rights to take a closer look at the evidence. Instead of sharing simple claims about terrorism and poaching, they should consider all the forms of economic support to terrorist organisations.

The ConversationIn Cameroon, this would mean offering better security for pastoralists and their cattle. Protecting cattle does not have the same appeal for Western audiences as protecting elephants. But it could be a way to conserve wildlife, protect human rights and stop funding for terrorism.

Mark Moritz, Associate Professor of Anthropology, The Ohio State University; Alice B. Kelly Pennaz, Researcher, University of California, Berkeley; Mouadjamou Ahmadou, Lecturer in Visual Anthropology, and Paul Scholte, Ecologist leading programs and organizations in conservation, The Ohio State University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.