The Relevance of Ecological Transitions to Intelligence in Marine Mammals

Macphail’s comparative approach to intelligence focused on associative processes, an orientation inconsistent with more multifaceted lay and scientific understandings of the term. His ultimate emphasis on associative processes indicated few differences in intelligence among vertebrates. We explore options more attuned to common definitions by considering intelligence in terms of richness of representations of the world, the interconnectivity of those representations, the ability to flexibly change those connections, and knowledge. We focus on marine mammals, represented by the amphibious pinnipeds and the aquatic cetaceans and sirenians, as animals that transitioned from a terrestrial existence to an aquatic one, experiencing major changes in ecological pressures. They adapted with morphological transformations related to streamlining the body, physiological changes in respiration and thermoregulation, and sensory/perceptual changes, including echolocation capabilities and diminished olfaction in many cetaceans, both in-air and underwater visual focus, and enhanced senses of touch in pinnipeds and sirenians. Having a terrestrial foundation on which aquatic capacities were overlaid likely affected their cognitive abilities, especially as a new reliance on sound and touch, and the need to surface to breath changed their interactions with the world. Vocal and behavioral observational learning capabilities in the wild and in laboratory experiments suggest versatility in group coordination. Empirical reports on aspects of intelligent behavior like problem-solving, spatial learning, and concept learning by various species of cetaceans and pinnipeds suggest rich cognitive abilities. The high energy demands of the brain suggest that brain-intelligence relationships might be fruitful areas for study when specific hypotheses are considered, e.g., brain mapping indicates hypertrophy of specific sensory areas in marine mammals. Modern neuroimaging techniques provide ways to study neural connectivity, and the patterns of connections between sensory, motor, and other cortical regions provide a biological framework for exploring how animals represent and flexibly use information in navigating and learning about their environment. At this stage of marine mammal research, it would still be prudent to follow Macphail’s caution that it is premature to make strong comparative statements without more empirical evidence, but an approach that includes learning more about how animals flexibly link information across multiple representations could be a productive way of comparing species by allowing them to use their specific strengths within comparative tasks.

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