Why Animal Culture Matters in the Conservation of Biodiversity

December 9, 2021

Conservation practitioners and scientists around the globe are highlighting the importance of studying and understanding the learned behaviors of nonhuman animals—particularly those at risk of extinction, such as great and small apes—as a way to improve their chances of survival.

This new approach was the focus of “Flourishing Diversity & The Importance of Nonhuman Cultures in Conservation,” a session hosted in September by Arcus Foundation, Synchronicity Earth, and Flourishing Diversity at the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) World Conservation Congress.

“Before the mid-20th century, [Western science] assumed that culture was unique to humans,” Andrew Whiten, an emeritus professor in the School of Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of St. Andrews, told the audience in a video presentation. But “people have discovered that the social form of inheritance”—as distinct from genetic inheritance—“is actually much more widespread in the animal kingdom than we could have imagined.

Once researchers began demonstrating cultural transmission through rigorously designed experiments in the field and in captivity, they saw culture everywhere. It existed not only among nonhuman primates, like Jane Goodall’s termite-fishing chimpanzees, but among birds, marine mammals, reptiles, and even invertebrates. Whiten described much of this research in The Burgeoning Reach of Animal Culture, a recent review paper published in the journal Science.

Social learning abounds

In Western cultures, perhaps one of the best-known examples of social learning, from the early 1900s, is England’s blue tits. These colorful perching birds not only discovered they could pierce the foil tops of milk bottles left on doorsteps, then suck out the cream; they soon taught other blue tits throughout Wales and Scotland to do the same.

Another famous example, from the 1960s: the macaques of Japan’s Koshima Island. After a young female began rinsing the sand from her sweet potatoes—provided by researchers—in a stream, the habit quickly spread through the colony. When the same female began dipping tubers in saltwater, presumably to add flavor, the rest of the colony also adopted the technique. The adaptation, said scientists, was clearly social, not ecological.

Moreover, Whiten said, “decades of research on chimpanzees document as many as 39 different traditions or cultural variations,” including a discovery in the 1990s that chimpanzees in western Africa survive dry periods by eating nuts they smash open with stones or wood—a behavior not seen elsewhere.

In the 1980s, oceanographers noticed that humpback whales in the Gulf of Maine had begun smacking the water’s surface with their tails to gather sandlances, a food source. That behavior has now spread to more than 40 percent of the humpback population in regions where sandlances are relatively abundant.

Integrating culture with conservation

This sort of social learning, said another session presenter, Philippa Brakes, a research fellow at Whale and Dolphin Conservation, “is ubiquitous across a huge range of taxa because it’s very useful for organisms to be able to respond to changes in their environments.” In recognition of this shift in thinking, the Convention on Migratory Species in 2017 acknowledged, for the first time, that a population unit may be defined by its cultural distinctiveness, rather than its genome alone.

Cultures are quicker to change and more flexible than genes. But the two forces work in concert. For example, among two populations of killer whales coexisting in the coastal waters of the North Pacific, one relies on chinook salmon, while the other eats only mammals. These cultural differences, Whiten said, have led to physiological differences in the whales’ digestive enzymes and jaw strength.

What do these differences mean for conservation? In the case of the killer whales, Brakes said, they imply a need for separate management strategies. To improve the salmon-eaters’ food supply, humans could potentially limit their harvest of chinook, which are threatened or endangered throughout their range, or remove dams from salmon streams.

Understanding social behaviors necessary for reproduction and survivorship—like where to forage during times of shortage, how to avoid predators, or when to migrate—is critical for individuals and groups. Awareness and understanding of these particulars “can also help conservationists do reintroductions more efficiently,” Brakes noted. Once researchers learned that critically endangered whooping cranes would imprint on humans, for example, they were able to guide captive-born cranes along a historic migration route using a microlight aircraft.

With this new appreciation of cultural diversity and social learning, conservationists can reformulate how they distinguish and manage populations they’re trying to protect, preserving both ecological and cultural diversity.

“If there’s environmental change,” Whiten said, “it may be that one of those subcultures has the resources to avoid that particular issue”—like the arrival of a new predator or the loss of a key food source.

By focusing only on large populations, or large blocks of habitat, conservationists may be missing important opportunities, said Arcus CEO Annette Lanjouw, who acted as moderator of the World Conservation Congress session alongside Dr. Sahil Nijhawan, a research associate at the Nature Conservation Foundation.

“Fragments and populations in extreme habitats on the margins of their distribution are vital,” Lanjouw said, “because that’s where many of these adaptations, learned through generations, are happening.” But these places also need protection, she said, “because they are critical for the survival of that species.”

“We need to see animals the way Indigenous people do”

This understanding of nonhuman species having culture and agency is not new. Many Indigenous societies, particularly animist societies, have always known that nonhuman animals have culture and believe that animals share ancestors with humans, have similar social structures, arrange themselves in clans, follow rules, and defend territories. “Such understandings are part of many Indigenous cosmologies that view nature as sacred and humanity as part of, not separate from or superior to, nature,” said Katy Scholfield, director of strategic grantmaking for Arcus’ Great Apes & Gibbons Program.

To the Idu Mishmi, who live in the Dibang Valley of northeastern India’s Arunachal Pradesh, “animal society is no different from how human society is arranged,” said Moprapo Mepo, an elder shaman, and Jibi Pulu, the owner of the ecolodge Mishmi Hill Camp and a co-founder of Dibang Adventure. The pair participated in the conference virtually in their village with simultaneous interpretation by Dr. Nijhawan.

“Both human and nonhuman hunters get power from the higher spirits,” Mepo and Pulu continued. They invoke rituals that are meant to pacify the spirit of the creature that will be slain and to preserve the hunter’s prowess.

“The rituals are long, they are intricate,” they said, describing how a tiger rubs its body against a particular tree before starting its hunt, eagles circle the sky and perch on trees, and “otters, the predators of the rivers, perform a similar ritual by laying in the sand.”

Humans, too, seek power from the creator spirit—via a shaman—for permission to hunt. And the shaman “invokes all of the rituals that other animal predators do,” Mepo and Pulu said.

But both humans and animals “can very easily lose those powers if they don’t follow the rules and the rituals around hunting,” they continued. Break a rule and “the master spirit” must be invited, through other rituals, to return the hunter’s power.

“How do the animal and human hunters learn those rituals?” Lanjouw asked Mepo and Pulu.

“Animal hunters learn from their parents, just like human kids learn from their parents,” they answered. “Cubs will learn what is food by eating what a tiger mother brings to [them], which is actually very similar to how human children learn from their parents—by copying, by mimicking. An eagle mother will teach her fledglings what food is, and what’s not. She’ll circle around the tree and teach them where to hunt.”

During a discussion that followed the session, Pieter Wit, an advisor to the board of Chimbo Foundation, described how chimpanzees in Guinea-Bissau hurl and stack stones against hollow tree trunks. The resulting noise is “definitely communication,” Wit said, but he was at a loss to say what was being communicated or why. Local residents, who consider chimpanzees another form of human being, told him only that the drumming was linked with chimps’ history, that “they were punished in the past by some gods because they did something wrong.”

Western scientists might not know why chimpanzees do this, Dr. Nijhawan said to Wit. “But there are people who do. Local communities and Indigenous Peoples have known about animal cultures for a long time.”

To involve Indigenous Peoples in conservation, Nijhawan continued, “we need to see animals the way Indigenous Peoples see animals—as sentient beings that think, that live, that see, that socialize, that learn, that pass on.”

And if Westerners “incorporate [Indigenous] ideas into our scientific learnings,” he said, “I think we’ll be much richer off, and we won’t need to start from scratch—because they already know.”