The Social Intelligence of Orcas
Orcas are our oceanic counterpart. They are one of the most successful ocean creatures. They inhabit all the oceans of the world and have become the ultimate top predators of the ocean. #TheOrcaWay
What is it about orcas that makes them so adapted to their marine environment, so smart?
Social Intelligence of Orcas, Where Does It Come From?
Orcas are very social and emotional animals. These creatures have large, complex brains that are structured differently from ours. Orcas have the second largest brain, after sperm whales, in the animal kingdom. The most intelligent animals, such as cetaceans, elephants and primates, have the largest brains.
Orcas have the second largest brain of any animal.
They are very social and emotional.
However, it must be more than the size of their brains that makes orcas smart. There are four characteristics of their brain structure in which orcas excelled and differ from us. Scientists have discovered that some measures of the brain structure are correlated with cognition. One is cortical thickness that is a measure of cerebral cortex. This part of the brain is associated with memory, attention, language, thought and consciousness. Cetaceans rank high in cortical thickness, but no as well as primates and humans; however, cetaceans’ cortices are structured differently.
There are four characteristics of their brain structure in which orcas excelled and differ from us.
A second measure of brain structure is gyrification which is the amount of wrinkling and folding in the cortex. Gyrification increases the amount of total cortical nerve tissue that processes information, making brains with more wrinkles and folds more skillful of handling more data and processing it faster. Since cortical folds allow cells to be closer to each other, they require less time and energy to transmit neural impulses. As a result, it increases the speed of brain cell communication. Cetaceans have significantly higher gyrification, compared to land mammals. Neuroscientists are bewildered at how heavily folded the cetacean brains are. The gyrencephaly index (GI) for humans is 2.2; for bottlenose dolphins is 5.62, and for orcas is 5.70. This makes orcas the most gyrified brain in the world.
Orcas present the most gyrified brain in the world which is which is related to the amount of wrinkling and folding in the cerebral cortex. Therefore, orcas are able to handle more data and processing it faster
Orcas have a highly developed set of brain lobes called paralimbic system, compared to land mammals, including humans. This part of the brain is related to spatial memory and navigation. Another characteristic of the brains of orcas is their highly developed amygdala which is associated with emotional learning and long-term memories.
Orcas have a highly developed paralimbic system and amygdala. The first related to spatial memory and navigation, and the second to emotional learning and long-term memories.
Yet, the most fascinating part of orcas brain that amazes scientists is the insular cortex (known as insula) which is the most elaborated in the world. The insula is involved in consciousness and playing diverse functions linked to emotions that includes compassion, empathy, perception, motor control, self-awareness, and interpersonal experience. According to the neuroscientist Lori Marino: “It is a very, very interesting part of the brain.” Many scientists and trainers have observed for a long-time complex emotions in orcas, and they also have powerful empathy for each other and for humans.
Orcas present the most elaborated insular cortex in the world. This is involved in emotions, such as compassion, empathy, perception, motor control, self-awareness, and interpersonal experience.
What are orcas doing with all that brain power? Since auditory nerve fibers are predominant in their brains, they are probably using it to process information from their hearing capacities. Orcas have evolved immersed in water which is a tremendous transmitter of sound: four times faster than in air. Therefore, orcas use sound to perceive the world around them.
Orcas have evolved immersed in water which is a tremendous transmitter of sound. Therefore, orcas use sound to perceive the world around them.
Echolocation is the sixth sense of dolphins and orcas. Orcas and dolphins produce clicks that are transmitted by a fatty tissue called melon. This produces a directional and amplified sound that travels in water up to 800 meters. When finding an object the sound bounces and returns to the orca. The lower jaw receives the wave and through the auditory nerve the information ends up in the brain. Through this sense orcas not only see the shape of the object, they can also see inside it. When orcas echolocate they get a mental picture: through sound they see underwater. Echolocation is used for navigation and for foraging. Furthermore, echolocation can be shared with other members. It can become a social activity. This is the kind of social intelligence of orcas that is beyond our ability to completely comprehend.
Orcas have a sixth sense: echolocation, through sound they see underwater. Echolocation is used for navigation, for communication and for foraging.
Besides echo, orcas produce a wide variety of clicks, whistles, and pulsed calls to communicate. Lori Marino -a neuroscientist and expert in animal behavior and intelligence- observes that “orcas are the most acoustically sophisticated animal on the planet.” Thus, orcas perceive the world in a way that we can only imagine.
“If their brains are structurally and fundamentally different, then our criteria for intelligence will almost certainly be different than theirs, too. It is just as possible they see us as acoustically obtuse and primitive – since, in comparison to them, we probably are.” From David Neiwert in Of Orcas and Men.
“Orcas are the most acoustically sophisticated animal on the planet.” Lori Marino – brain scientist.
Most orca calls in the wild consist of a very limited vocabulary of about 40 sounds used by each whale. Yet, scientists who have analyzed the nature of the calls say that these are very dense and rich. Also, there are tremendous variations in intensity, volume and tone, as well as emotional content. After half a century studying dolphins and orcas communication, scientists have not been able to understand it. We still wonder: Do dolphins and orcas have a language? Is it similar to the one we know as humans? How does it relate to the social intelligence of orcas?
After half a century studying dolphins and orcas communication, scientists have not been able to understand it.
The root of the problem is that we apply an anthropocentric definition of intelligence, one that involves language and its use. Humans are on the top, since language is one of our greatest evolutionary advantages. Thomas White has proposed an alternative approach to defining intelligence, one that is “species specific”: the challenges that need to be met simply to stay alive are significantly different on the land and in the water. We should think about intelligence simply as the intellectual and emotional abilities that make it possible for a species to survive in their environment and to solve the problems and overcome the challenges that life throws at them.”
The problem is that humans apply an anthropocentric definition of intelligence, when intelligence should be “species- specific”: intellectual and emotional abilities that make it possible for a species to survive in their environment, in orca case a marine environment.
Carl Sagan -astronomer and cosmologist- once famously observed “It is of interest to note that while some dolphins are reported to have learned English, up to 50 words used in correct context, no human being has been reported to have learned dolphinese.” “Recognizing intelligence and self-awareness in other animals is difficult because we are limited by what we can understand and experience,'' says Lori Marino.
“It is of interest to note that while some dolphins are reported to have learned English, no human being has been reported to have learned dolphinese.” Carl Sagan – astronomer and cosmologist
What they are communicating and how, remains a mystery. We will need an orcas complex brain to be able to process and translate that information. Communication between orcas is the most tantalizing aspect of what we know or don’t know about orcas.
What they are communicating and how, remains a mystery.
The social intelligence of orcas shows that they are highly intelligent animals. They have successfully adapted to their marine environment and excelled. The size and structure of their brain has evolved to perceive the world around them through sound and efficiently communicate, becoming the most acoustically sophisticated animal on the planet.
For humans, what they can truly do with this information is still a puzzle. As marine mammals psychologist Stan Kuczaj puts it “The question is not how smart dolphins are (including orcas), but how are they intelligent?”
In decades to come, orcas will continue amazing us.
- Ford, John K. B.. Killer Whales: The Natural History and Genealogy of Orcinus Orca in British Columbia and Washington, UBC Press, 1993.
- David Neiwert. 2015. Of Orcas and Men: What killer whales can teach us. The Overlook Press, New York.
- Joshua Foer. May, 2015. In the mind of a dolphin. National Geographic.
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