Meet the Different Social Influencers of the Animal Kingdom
Julia, her friends and family agreed, had style. When the 18-year-old chimpanzee started out of the blue inserting long, stiff blades of grass into one or both ears, and then started her day with her new, world-visible statement accessories, the other chimpanzees at Chimfunshi Conservation Area in Zambia were dazzled .
Pretty soon they tried it too: first their son, then their two closest friends, then a male friend, up to eight of the ten chimpanzees in the group, who all fought in front of Julia the influencer – and hidden video cameras – to find the grass-in- Getting ear routine just right. “It was pretty fun to watch,” said Edwin van Leeuwen from the University of Antwerp, who studies animal culture. “You have tried again and again without success. They were shaking all over their bodies. “
Dr. van Leeuwen tried it himself and understood why.
“It is not a comfortable feeling to stick a piece of grass in your ear enough to stay there,” he said. But once the chimpanzees mastered the technique, they would repeat it often, proudly, almost ritually, playing with the blades inserted to make sure others were appropriately impressed.
Julia died more than two years ago, but her weed ear routine – a tradition that arose spontaneously, spread via social networks, and is uncomfortably close to a human meme or fad – lives on among her followers in the sanctuary. Behavior is just one of many surprising examples of animal culture recently revealed by researchers, as an illustrative summary in a recent issue of Science makes clear. Culture was once considered a patented human property: we have art, science, music and online shopping; Animals have the instinct, the imprint and the hard-wired reactions. But this dismissive attitude towards nonhuman minds turns out to be profoundly wrong with every new discovery of animal joke or whim: culture, as many biologists now understand it, is much larger than we are.
“When you define culture as a set of behaviors shared by a group and transmitted through the group through social learning, you find that they are prevalent in the animal kingdom,” said Andrew Whiten, psychologist and neuroscientist at the University of St. Andrews, in Scotland, and the author of the Science Review. “You see it from primates and whales to birds and fish, and now we even find it in insects.”
Culture “is another mechanism of inheritance, like genes,” said Hal Whitehead of Dalhousie University, who studies culture in whales. “It’s a different way information can flow through a population.” But culture has distinct advantages over DNA when it comes to the pace and direction of the information trade. While genetic information can only move vertically from parent to offspring, cultural information can flow vertically and horizontally: old to young, young to old, peer to peer, no bloodlines required.
Gene wood, but culture is increasing. In 1980, for example, an attentive humpback whale discovered that the tiny fish it was hunting for were clumped together into neat packages by hitting its tail hard against the water, making them relatively easy to catch and eat. The improved hunting technique known as lobtail feeding quickly spread along well-known lines of humpback social groups, aided, researchers suggest, by the whale’s talent for acrobatic mimicry among members of a pod. Today more than 600 humpback whales are lobtail feeders. “This would only be the case if it were socially transmitted,” said Dr. Whiten.
Sperm whales also used crowdsourcing to outsmart Ahab. In a new study examining 19th century whaling tribes, Dr. Whitehead and colleagues found that when New England whalers first hunted a naive population of sperm whales in the North Pacific, they were essentially harpooning fish in a barrel, harvesting countless gallons of the fine spermaceti oil contained in the distinctive cylinder of an acoustic organ of the whale is included. In just three to five years, long before the whalers hit the whale population, their hunting success rate had dropped by nearly 60 percent.
“The whales learned from each other very quickly to avoid being harpooned,” said Dr. Whitehead. Tip # 1: Humans are not like your traditional enemy, the killer whale. So forget about the old defense strategy of creating a tight circle with your babies protected in the middle. “That just gives the whalers something to point their harpoon at,” said Dr. Whitehead. Tip # 2: swim fast against the wind – people hate rowing against the wind in the ocean and they will soon give up the hunt. Tip # 3: Find Your Inner Moby; Take a deep dive, stand up, and smash the whaling ship into pieces.
Some differences between animal phyla only make sense when viewed through a cultural lens. Liran Samuni, a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard, and her colleagues have followed two neighboring groups of bonobos in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The home ranges of the chimpanzee-like monkeys overlap significantly, and the bonobo troops often meet and mingle, groom, travel and forage together, and take frequent breaks to rub each other at the pool.
But there is one salient difference between them. Bonobos add meat to their vegetarian diet once or twice a month, and when these two troops become carnivorous, they look for different prey. One group tracks anomalies that resemble flying squirrels, while the other hunts small antelopes called duikers.
“No matter where you are, even when the group is together, keep the preference,” said Dr. Samuni. “When a hunt begins, it follows the group lines: the Duiker group chases Duiker, the anomaly group pursues anomalies.” Dr. Samuni suggests that loot specialization is either used to reduce competition between neighbors or to cement the feeling of team identity. “We all want to feel like we belong to a group, and that feeling has ancient origins,” she said.
Peter Richerson of the University of California at Davis, who studies the coevolution of genes and culture in humans, admitted that he once hated talking about animal culture, but has since changed his mind. “This is a golden age for animal culture and non-human learning studies,” he said.
He is particularly impressed with recent research showing that animal migrations, long viewed as the essence of a pointless instinct to move, are indeed culturally determined. “Mountain sheep have to learn how to migrate from other sheep,” he said. Whooping cranes are long-distance migrants, and when their numbers dropped so much that there weren’t any adult birds to teach young birds the route, conservationists stepped in and used microlights as whooping crane instructors. Even farm animals can be repositories of cultural wisdom, as ranchers discover when they sell their entire herd at a steep rate.
“Cows learn your ranch and when you start with new cows they don’t know where the water is or where the best places to cuddle are,” said Dr. Richerson. “There’s a lot more going on inside a cow than you might think.”
And more buzz in a bee’s hood. Lars Chittka of Queen Mary University in London and his colleagues showed that bumblebees can be gradually trained to pull on a string and gradually uncover a source of sugar. Very few bees could figure out the stringing trick on their own, but once an experienced person was in their midst, the other bumblebees learned by watching. In addition, the researchers reported in the journal PLoS Biology that the ability to pull strings could be transferred from colony to colony even under near-natural conditions outdoors. The authors’ conclusion: a bumblebee’s brain fits easily on a lens, but that is more than enough to “culturally disseminate unusual abilities”.