Race to Space: The true story of whale brains

Humans may not be the first life forms on Earth to evolve love and language. Researchers recently discovered an abundance of rare neurons in several ocean mammals’ brains thought to exist only in primates.

Fin, humpback and killer whales (species of dolphin), contain spindle cells. Growing evidence indicates these specialized neurons are integral for self-awareness, empathy, love, suffering, language and judgment in humans. Early estimates reveal whales have three times the number of spindles as people, who boast the most of all primates. The cells act as electrical shortcuts allowing gut reactions.

Whales and dolphins display human behavior, like forming family groups. Individuals even have names. Adult male humpbacks, recently thought to be solitary drifters, often join others. Decades later, some best buds remain together and even sing with identical signatures, capable of communicating through 1,000 kilometers of ocean, 10 times the distance to space.

Peter Tyack of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute has said, “Humpback song is a form of animal culture, just like music for humans would be.” Popular songs change over time, while original songs are important to a female’s choice in mates.

Captive bottlenose dolphins show awareness through self-recognition in mirrors and check themselves out daily, some as early as the age of 6 months. Human toddlers realize mirrors show their reflection around 18 months.

Mysteries of the ocean unravel each year. In 2007, part of a bomb used to hunt whales in the 1880s was found lodged in the shoulder of a dead bowhead. Eye samples of bowhead whales revealed many individuals in their mid-hundreds, one as old as 240 greatly surpassing humans as the oldest living mammal. This means right now, the oceans contain self-aware animals that have been swimming since Thomas Jefferson was president.

Whales have evolved twice as long as primates and contain spindle cells in parts of the brain not found in people. These discoveries indicate Earth’s first self-aware life form was not a person, but a whale. Love and language, previously thought to be uniquely human, likely unfolded beneath ocean waves 15 million years before primates. The oceans are not what they seem.

Metro does not endorse the opinions of the author, or any opinions expressed on its pages.


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