For years, marine scientists have proclaimed the high intelligence of dolphins – and now it appears the humpback whale is also among the bright sparks of the deep.
Researchers in the US have discovered that humpback whales have a type of brain cell seen only in humans, the great apes, and other cetaceans such as dolphins.
Studying the brains of humpbacks, Patrick Hof and Estel Van der Gucht of the Department of Neuroscience at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York discovered a type of cell known as a spindle neuron in the cortex, in areas comparable to where they are seen in humans and great apes.
Although the function of spindle neurons is not well understood, they may be involved in processes of cognition - learning, remembering and recognising the world around oneself. The cells are also thought by some to be affected by Alzheimer’s disease and other debilitating brain disorders such as autism and schizophrenia.
The findings may help to explain some of the distinctive traits exhibited by whales, such as sophisticated communication skills, the ability to form alliances and co-operate, the researchers report in The Anatomical Record.