Whales in love: Like humans, their brains are wired for romance

They are the touchy-feelies of the deep, with a capacity to experience love and attachment, thanks to some tiny cells, new research shows

A A A

We know that they sing, sending musical waves through the deep as they travel in complex family units. We know that they appear stricken with grief when one of them dies. And now we know that the great whales of the world are capable of loving.

A remarkable new study will reveal that whales - hunted for centuries by man, and lauded in ancient literature for their mystical qualities - have the ability to experience love and also deep-rooted emotional suffering.

Two scientists - Patrick Hof and Estel Van Der Gucht, of the New York Consortium in Evolutionary Primatology - made the breakthrough after spending 15 years studying the brains of the biggest mammals on the planet.

They did not expect to find anything unusual when they set out to study the inner workings of the large whale brain. But the scientists were determined that humans should know more about the minds of these mysterious creatures.

They discovered something that could change the way the world views whales, which are still hunted by Japan and Norway for "scientific purposes". As they studied a brain, they came across a spindle cell - a cell originally thought to live only in humans and great apes, and which allows humans to experience love and emotions.

Professor Hof told The Independent on Sunday: "I really wasn't expecting this. I stumbled on one by chance and I said, this looks like a spindle cell. Then I saw them everywhere, and I immediately realised that we had something big."

The spindle cells were found in humpback whales, fin whales, killer whales and sperm whales - all the whales that have large brains as well as large bodies. The discovery not only means that humans and apes aren't the only ones who have these distinguishing spindle cells, but that primates were not the first to have them.

It appears that large whales have been evolving these cells for 30 million years - twice as long as humans, according to an article in New Scientist ahead of publication of the scientists' findings.

Whales also have more of these emotion-controlling cells, and early research indicates that they may have up to three times as many spindle cells as humans. In humans, these cells help process emotions and encourage the development of social interaction.

But even though the cells allow humans to feel love, more work will be needed to judge whether love is the same for humans as it is for whales, Professor Hof, the vice-chairman of the department of neuroscience, said from his office at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York.

"I don't know about love or emotion," he added. "I don't know the nature of such feelings in these animals. Whales are isolated and we cannot just apply what we see in great apes or ourselves in that type of animal. It's very difficult to know. Many people would like to say that, of course."

But these spindle cells were found in the same area of the brain that regulates emotional functions such as social organisation, empathy, speech, intuition, and rapid gut reactions in humans - the anterior cingulate cortex and frontoinsular cortex. Large whales do show some of these characteristics, making the findings even more significant to the academic. Cells were also found in other areas of the whale's brain, but Professor Hof doesn't know the significance of these finds.

He said: "What is fascinating about the species these cells were found in, is that you have the capacity for frequency and specificity. They can communicate in an intelligible manner. Hunting parties are very well co-ordinated. You can see killer whales teaching hunting techniques to their offspring. It's quite striking."

Professor Hof is still investigating exactly how spindle cells function in whales, but for now he believes that long, high-speed connections fast track information to and from other parts of the cortex. The quick connection allows for instant processing and appropriate emotional cues for given situations.

After discovering the spindle cells in whales, Professor Hof is to look at other large animals. He is currently studying elephant brains, and said he expects to find spindle cells.

This type of research was crucial, he said, and when it came to large whales, more of it needed to be done. "They are difficult to track in the ocean, but it's worth the effort. There's so much that humans just don't know about large whales, and any information that comes out can only make it easier for people to help protect and conserve these mysterious animals.

"They are certainly popular animals in general, but they are all threatened and live in habitats frequently quite endangered. We just don't know enough about their biology."

The scientists' report will appear in the January edition of The Anatomical Record.

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper / Office Co-ordinator

£9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This role is based within a small family run ...

Recruitment Genius: Designer - Print & Digital

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Design and marketing agenc...

Recruitment Genius: Quantity Surveyor

£46000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This property investment firm are lookin...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales / Telemarketing Executive - OTE £30k / £35k plus

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company specialises provid...

Day In a Page

Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

Harry Kane interview

The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

Michael Calvin's Last Word

For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

Time to play God

Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

MacGyver returns, but with a difference

Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

Tunnel renaissance

Why cities are hiding roads underground
'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

Boys to men

The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

Crufts 2015

Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
10 best projectors

How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

Monaco: the making of Wenger

Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

Homage or plagiarism?

'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review