Protecting Animal Culture, a New Strategy for Species Conservation
Grandma orcas teach new-borns how to hunt, sperm whales live in clans that stand out according to different types of vocalization, thus creating social barriers, chimpanzees, according to a custom handed down from generation to generation, open the nuts with stones. In many animal species social learning generates real forms of culture.
An international group of scientists has come to these results, including the Italians Fernando Spina of ISPRA, Giuseppe Notarbartolo of Sciara of the Tethys Research Institute and Paolo Ciucci of Sapienza University of Rome, in a study published in the scientific journal Science. This is a fundamental aspect and must be taken seriously into consideration, both to plan concrete protection measures and to develop conservation policies that are adequate and effective. In order to plan the correct protection of animal species, states the study, it is extremely important to consider forms of social knowledge that represent real expressions of animal culture.
An accurate knowledge of what animal cultures are and how they work offers an innovative perspective on which are the groups of individuals or populations to protect in a priority manner, and which are the most effective strategies. Understand, for example, what is the importance of information that in orcas grandmothers transmit to newborns, or why in chimpanzees the use of stones to break walnuts is a cultural tradition present and transmitted from generation to generation in some groups but not in others, can reveal essential aspects for the conservation of those species.
In many animal species, expedients and tactics to survive are learned by inexperienced young animals by carefully observing adults in the social group, who wisely carry knowledge. This important phase of learning can relate to the ways in which they communicate, how and where to find food, how to eat efficiently, or where to migrate when the environmental conditions become poor.
For example, the transmission of knowledge on migratory routes in the Canadian cranes as in the wild American sheep provides vital information for the species to survive in the future as they have done for many generations. Unlike genetic inheritance, knowledge transmitted by social means can be transmitted unchanged from generation to generation and be extremely useful for the discovery of a new food source. As such, these forms of culture can therefore be extremely valuable for animal species, facilitating them in the processes of adaptation and survival in potentially mutable environments.
The study also underlines that social learning processes can determine the formation of cultural groups whose behavioral profiles are different and distinctive within a population; this behavior can generate real social barriers, as it was discovered in sperm whales from the tropical eastern Pacific, that live in vocally different clans. These mechanisms of cultural segregation have important implications for conservation, especially if distinct groups show different food strategies that correspond to a different ability to adapt to climate change.
In order to protect this "social capital", in some species it should be possible to characterize animal populations based on their cultural profile rather than the more traditional approaches based on genetic diversity or geographical isolation. For some species, protecting individuals that act as archives of social knowledge is as important as protecting the critical habitat that the species needs, such as in the matriarchal groups of elephants where adult females with more experience are the main element of the whole group.
Animal cultures matter for conservation - Brakes, P., Dall, S. R., Aplin, L. M., Bearhop, S., Carroll, E. L., Ciucci, P., ... & McGreggor, P. K. - Science 2019, 363, 1032-1034.
Department of Biology and Biotechnology "Charles Darwin", Sapienza University of Rome