I'm a boat captain and naturalist working on humpback whale watch tours off
the Big Island of Hawaii. I just read that researchers at Dartmouth have
identified the rostromedial prefrontal cortex as the part of the brain humans
use to recall melody. I'm curious if humpbacks have a proportionally larger
or more complex rostromedial prefrontal cortex than whales that don't sing.
And if that is the case, do male humpbacks have more complex rostromedial
prefrontal cortexes than females?
Dear Captain Claire,
That's a very technical question a bit beyond my area, so I consulted Dr.
Richard Osborne of the Whale Museum (firstname.lastname@example.org) and here's
We do not have that kind of information about whale brains - magnetic
resonance imaging of living whales has some serious logistical problems
that will need to be overcome first (i.e. behaviorally testing a whale's
memory of tunes while its in an MRI scanner). However, based on
neuroanatomy of dead whales it is reasonable to assume they have cortical
melody memory areas, and it could be in the prefrontal cortex. Sex
differences in humpbacks are not out of the question in terms of size of
that area as well, since "use" of neocortex is directly related to how much
cortex becomes devoted to certain tasks. ... So the proposed sexual
difference in size of cortex devoted to it would not necessarily be
genetic, but more-likely the result of cultural influences that dictate
males sing the songs and females only listen.
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