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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Cetacean Brain Evolution: Multiplication Generates Complexity


Over the past 55-60 million years cetacean (dolphin, whale, and porpoise) brains have become hyperexpanded so that modern cetacean encephalization levels are second only to modern humans. At the same time, brain expansion proceeded along very different lines than in other large-brained mammals so that substantial differences between modern cetacean brains and other mammalian brains exist at every level of brain organization. Perhaps the most profound difference between cetacean and other mammalian brains is in the architecture of the neocortex. Cetaceans possess a unique underlying neocortical organizational scheme that is particularly intriguing in light of the fact that cetaceans exhibit cognitive and behavioral complexity at least on a par with our closest phylogenetic relatives, the great apes. The neurobiological complexity underlying these cognitive capacities may involve the extreme multiplication of vertical structural units in the cetacean neocortex.

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