Reports of killer whales attacking yachts have made waves in the news recently.
This new behavior – killer whales bumping boats – spawned a wave of orca memes and sparked speculation as to the root of this strange behavior.
While we still don’t know why killer whales attack boats, the phenomenon illuminates a fascinating aspect of the animal world: the emergence and spread of culture.
Do animals have culture?
From tiny fruit flies to massive whales, the ability to learn from others makes animals more adaptable, which is especially valuable in the current human-dominated era of Earth. Yet there are still countless mysteries surrounding animal culture and its role in the survival of species in a changing world.
What is animal culture?
Like humans, animal culture includes behaviors, traditions, and knowledge shared among individuals and passed down through generations.
Living in social groups allows many species to engage in collective activities that would be challenging to do alone. Prairie dogs, for example, live in colonies where one member watches for predators while the others go about their daily tasks.
Within social groups, animals can learn by watching and imitating each other’s behavior. By observing more experienced group members, animals can note successes and failures without having to personally face the risks associated with certain behaviors.
Examples of animal culture
Culture encompasses a wide range of practices, including communication methods, tool use, and ways of social interaction. Below are a few species and their unique cultural practices:
- Honey bees communicate with special “wobble dances” that tell other bees about the location, distance and quality of food. While basic waggle dances are innate, bees that do not learn waggle dances from others they seem to have less coordinated dancing which, according to scientists, convey less information.
- In Australia, cockatoo cope with human encroachment by learning from each other how to open garbage can lids and gain access to human food scraps.
- Researchers have observed some bottlenose dolphins using mushrooms as hunting tools; DNA evidence shows that this learned behavior is passed down almost exclusively between mothers and their daughters.
- Sperm whales use social learning to acquire unique “codes”click-like communication patterns that scientists believe are the basis for group formation in the larger sperm whale society.
Read more: Can animals learn language like humans?
Second succession system
Culture plays a crucial role in allowing social animals to quickly adapt to changing environments.
Unlike genetic inheritance, which involves the transfer of favorable traits from parents to offspring, culture can emerge and spread within a generation.
This so-calledsecond system of inheritance” enables groups to quickly adopt new practices and adapt to a dynamic environment.
Threats to animal culture
While animal culture can increase the resilience of a species to human disturbance, human changes to the environment can also impede the spread of culture.
Habitat loss, light and sound pollution, climate change and hunting can limit the development of new behaviors or disrupt the social dynamics of animals. For example, boat traffic noise causing the sperm whales to communicate lesswhich scientists say may make their groups less cohesive.
Recognizing the importance of animal culture, there is a growing movement among global conservation groups to adopt policies that protect unique cultural traditions within species.