Animal Cultures Matter for Conservation

In the same way that people in different groups or regions of the world may have different traditions and customs, so different animal groups and populations may have their own cultures. Acknowledging this aspect in management strategies may be key for the effective conservation of wildlife populations.  

Animal culture is defined as information or behaviour shared within a community which is acquired from conspecifics through social learning. It is knowledge that individuals acquire over long periods of time, generally generations, which then gets passed-on to offspring – possibly so they don’t have to go through a long series of wrong attempts to learn a valuable action or behaviour. For example, without socially inherited knowledge, bighorn sheep and moose translocated to unfamiliar habitats can take generations to learn how to track the seasonal distribution of high-quality forage1. Ultimately, culture provides individual, groups and potentially entire populations with increased chances of survival and reproduction.

Cultural transmission may occur actively (i.e., via teaching) or passively (i.e., by being observed). A remarkable study on teaching in the animal kingdom comes from the arid regions of southern Africa, from a population of wild meerkats. Meerkats feed on a range of vertebrate and invertebrate animals, including some that are particularly dangerous to youngsters, such as scorpions. To teach their pups how to hunt, adult meerkats will slowly introduce the youngsters to weakened live prey. For instance, scorpions are usually disabled by removing the sting. As the pups get confident handling live prey, the adults will gradually alter their prey-provisioning methods, until the day the pups are finally able to kill live prey fully by themselves2.

Meerkat adult grooming a youngster. Image credits:

A classic example on the value of culture in the animal kingdom comes from elephants, where the experience of the eldest female, in terms of territorial and ecological knowledge, and migratory routes, is fundamental to guide the younger individuals through the vast African landscapes, in search for water and food. The experience of elephant matriarchs has been shown to positively influence the reproduction of younger females in the group. On this note, matriarchs are considered “repositories of social knowledge in African elephants”3, and they can guide their group for decades.

Conservation actions that do not consider culture may lose out on effectiveness. For instance, considering the case of the elephants, the killing of the matriarchal female may result in the death of the rest of the elephants in the group.

Social learning can also be exploited by management to mitigate levels of human-wildlife conflict. For instance, desirable behaviours could be artificially introduced into wildlife populations, such as the avoidance of particular foods or sites that would otherwise lead to human-wildlife encounters and conflict.  

In a study recently published in Science international scientists argue that it is time to make culture a main component of future conservation strategies to enhance their effectiveness4. The authors see the development of post-2020 biodiversity framework as an opportunity for this to happen.

The extent to which social learning and culture occurs in the animal kingdom remains to be fully uncovered by science to date.

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  1. Jesmer, B.R., Merkle, J.A., Goheen, J.R., Aikens, E.O., Beck, J.L., Courtemanch, A.B., Hurley, M.A., McWhirter, D.E., Miyasaki, H.M., Monteith, K.L. and Kauffman, M.J., 2018. Is ungulate migration culturally transmitted? Evidence of social learning from translocated animals. Science361(6406), pp.1023-1025.
  2. Thornton, A. and McAuliffe, K., 2006. Teaching in wild meerkats. Science313(5784), pp.227-229.
  3. McComb, K., Moss, C., Durant, S.M., Baker, L. and Sayialel, S., 2001. Matriarchs as repositories of social knowledge in African elephants. Science292(5516), pp.491-494.
  4. Brakes, P., Dall, S.R., Aplin, L.M., Bearhop, S., Carroll, E.L., Ciucci, P., Fishlock, V., Ford, J.K., Garland, E.C., Keith, S.A. and McGregor, P.K., 2019. Animal cultures matter for conservation. Science363(6431), pp.1032-1034.

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