Wild About Animal Culture

Our knowledge of animal behaviour has grown significantly over the past few decades and one of the places our understanding has shifted is around social learning and animal culture. For a long time we assumed that culture was the domain of humans, that animal behaviour, even in social groups, was a matter of instinct, rather than co-created learning. Research in this area has challenged our assumptions.

First, it’s important to understand what we mean by ‘culture.’ While pinning down an exact definition is difficult, culture is a persistent behaviour that is co-created by a group and taught to other individuals. If you tear out your lawn and replace it with a ball pit, that’s not cultural. But if you build a front yard ball pit and everyone else copies you and ten years from now your town becomes known as the place where people have ball pit lawns? That’s a cultural behaviour.

The core of culture, whether it is in animals or humans, is social learning. Whale researcher Shane Gero explains the connection between learning and culture as “Behavior is what you do. Culture is how you’ve learned to do it.” Without social learning, when how things are done are passed between individuals, culture cannot exist.

An interesting example of social learning comes from the brown-headed cowbird. Cowbirds are brood parasites, meaning the adults sneak their eggs into the nests of other birds, who then incubate and raise the imposters as their own. But how do cowbirds know how to grow up and repeat this behaviour? It turns out that teenage cowbirds sneak out of their nests to secretly meet up with other cowbirds who teach them these behaviours. 

A black bird with a brown head eats seeds on the ground.
Brown-headed cowbirds learn their parasitic behaviour. Rhododendrites, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

One of the key tests for cultural behaviours is whether all members of a species engage in a behaviour. For example, all chimps climb trees, so that is not cultural. However, only some chips hammer open nuts, a behaviour they have learned from other members of their group which is part of their culture. 

An implicit part of culture is the establishment of social norms. The reason that most people have lawns rather than vegetable gardens (or ball pits) in their front yards is because there is a cultural expectation of how a front yard should look that we have learned from one another. The knowledge we gain from social learning (in contrast to instinctive (genetic) or individual learning) creates identity and conformity and enhances our social structure.

For humans, this cultural knowledge is not directly related to our survival. What I do with my front lawn has little bearing on my longevity as an individual or as a member of the human species. The same is true of cultural learning in animals. White-faced capuchin monkeys have been observed sticking their fingers in each other’s eyes, a behaviour that has no purpose except to create social cohesion, in the same way a group of human teenagers might dare each other to dive off a cliff. 

A black monkey with a white face perchs on a tree stump.
White-faced capuchin by Michelle Reback, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Earlier this year, killer whales made headlines for their newly observed behaviour of ramming boats in the Strait of Gibraltar. It turns out that this behaviour is not spontaneous, but was first observed 3 years ago and the number of incidents has been growing ever since. Both trauma and play have been suggested as reasons for this behaviour, but whatever the case, it is clear that this behaviour is now part of the culture of this group of whales. 

A killer whale leaps out of the water.
Many whales have cultural behaviors, but only some ram boats. US Forest Service, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

While we are increasingly learning that human behaviours are not necessarily unique from animal behaviours, we also need to be cautious when assuming that human culture is equivalent to animal culture. Culture is created by group dynamics. In the same way that different groups of people have different cultures, we should not assume that animal cultures are expressed in ways we understand as humans. The boat-ramming killer whales may be seeking revenge for trauma or they may be playing or they may be engaging in a cultural behaviour that has a rationale that we don’t understand. 

One thing that is clear is that culture is tied to our environment. For animals, this means that habitat destruction may also have a disruptive effect on animal culture. As we are seeking to restore lost habitats and conserve wildlife populations, we need to be aware of culture alongside biodiversity and habitat structure. 

On the positive side, we know that culture emerges through innovation. It may be that animal cultures provide resiliency that can help them adapt to a rapidly changing world.