Saturday, 20 March 2010

Orcas' intelligence underestimated

If you thought Jaws was the smartest fish in the sea, well, you might be right. But researchers have recently discovered that killer whales have "astounding potential for intelligence," making them possibly the smartest, biggest, and most powerful predator in the world. According to a story in the Los Angeles Times, orcas have brains that are "well-wired for sensing and analyzing their watery environment."

The Times reports that researchers in Atlanta are studying ways whales learn languages, teach one another hunting skills, and teach behavior to their children in much the same way humans pass information on to younger generations. Given recent media scrutiny about a captive orca who killed a human, researchers remain unsurprised that the whales would respond this way when, "captured and kept for years in a tank and cut off from the influences of an extended family."

The article reports that scientists believe the whales act intentionally, feel emotions like anger, and are aware of their actions, whether these are performing tricks in a water show or lashing out against a trainer.

The whales have very large brains, about 2.5 times the average, which is similar to the brain/body weight ratio in chimpanzees. But according to the Times, even this large brain size understates the capabilities of the mammals' thinking powers. Researchers are interested in the ways whales respond to whistles and pulses and seem to have a sonar-like system to "see" via clicking sounds. These sounds come together to form languages the orcas seem to use to communicate with one another.

The article cites a specific study done in Hawaii, where researchers found the whales communicated to not only locate the fish they would eat, but to identify a specific meal that interested them most: "chinook salmon."

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