What are some examples of animal culture

"Animals also have culture"

Mr. Rutz, what does the term “animal culture” mean?

For us behavioral researchers, this means knowledge within a group of animals that has been acquired and passed on through social learning. Some scientists consider other criteria to be important, above all that this knowledge must last for a long time and lead to differences in the behavioral repertoire of different groups.

Can you give an example?

It is known that elephant herds are run matriarchally - that is, usually old, in any case very experienced cows. They have accumulated critical knowledge their entire life and now pass this on to their group, for example where to find food and water under particularly difficult circumstances.

Do all animals have such a culture?

We have evidence that social learning is widespread in the animal kingdom. But does this also lead to stable cultures? So far we can definitely only say that for a few well-studied species.

Besides elephants, the whales are also known ...

Correct. And primates, especially chimpanzees. They have been researched for decades, for example by Jane Goodall, who observed how these animals used tools and lead complex social lives as early as the 1960s.

So learning is less of a long evolutionary process, but rather the acquisition of knowledge over a shorter period of time?

Just as genetic information is passed on from one generation to the next, so is cultural heritage. However, knowledge can also be imparted within generations. Both processes go hand in hand. It is the same with us humans. And sometimes new ideas or behavior patterns - such as a particularly efficient way of getting food or an unusual form of communication - do indeed spread surprisingly quickly within a social group.

How do animals learn?

Social learning mechanisms are numerous. Mostly this happens through observation of conspecifics who know more. A naive young animal seeks the proximity of an older, experienced individual, while the latter solves important problems: for example, finding or processing food, or avoiding predators. The research of my working group shows, however, that important information can also be passed on indirectly. We are researching a species of crow that uses tools to forage on a remote island in the South Pacific. Young crows often watch intently how older birds make and use tools, but they also show great interest in the tools themselves if they are left behind after use. We suspect this is a good opportunity to learn what a good tool should look like by carefully inspecting the artifact.

What are the consequences of such knowledge about culture in animals for their protection?

We are learning more and more about the social behavior of animals and about their communities in general - and of course that has consequences for how we should perceive them and best protect them. Our findings help us with two main challenges: to identify animals that need special protection and to improve practical strategies and methods in nature conservation. Animals that are particularly worthy of protection can be individual animals, social groups or even entire populations.

You speak of the fact that individual animals may need special protection. So it's not just about populations?

It is, and it is very important. An excellent example of this are again the elephants with their incredibly knowledgeable matriarchs. Over decades they have built up knowledge of their habitat and the social fabric they share with their herd. If you lose these old cows to poaching, for example, it can have dramatic consequences for the whole group, which may perish. In other words: the old cows - and their wealth of knowledge - should definitely be protected. We must, however, always look at it case by case; other species may need a different protection strategy. Animal culture is just too complex to derive simple, general strategies.