Animal cultures important tool for their survival - study

12:55 pm on 3 March 2019

Like humans, there are different cultures within animal populations and experts are arguing it's a vital tool for conservation.

Short finned pilot whales


In a paper, published in the journal Science, British researchers said animals such as whales, elephants and some species of birds passed on cultural knowledge through the generations to aid their survival.

Senior author from Exeter University Philippa Brakes said within a single species there could be multiple cultures observed, within different family units.

"[For example] there are 39 different kinds of putative cultures [that] have been recognised in chimpanzees, so these are things that different groups of chimpanzees are doing uniquely, like putting a piece of grass behind their ear or the use of a stone to crack open nuts," she said.

Ms Brakes, who specialises in whale and dolphin research, added some cultures in the animal kingdom allow the groups to adapt, but for others, it can be a disadvantage.

"One good example is the killer whale because what killer whales learn from their mother, the kinds of foraging strategies that they use, they will use those strategies right through their lives."

She said if their prey changed, their ability to adapt was limited because their culture was so conservative.

The paper also noted the importance of a single individual in the group for passing on this inherited knowledge.

"There's an excellent study of African elephants that demonstrates the older the female matriarch is in her group the better the reproductive success rate is of the younger females.

"That tells us those older, more experienced matriarchs are able to confer information to the rest of her unit," she said.

She added that's why researchers need to hone in and conserve these cultures and individuals, rather than just focus on an animal's genetic make-up.

Return of the southern right whales

Mother and calf southern right whales, photographed from a research drone at the Auckland Islands breeding grounds.

Mother and calf southern right whales, photographed from a research drone at the Auckland Islands breeding grounds. Photo: Steve Dawson / University of Otago

Protecting passed-on knowledge could also help to return southern right whales back to New Zealand coastlines.

University of Auckland's Rutherford Discovery Fellow, Emma Carroll said until now the knowledge of the migratory routes around New Zealand's coastline were lost to the species due to commercial whaling in the 1800s.

"That's why we see many right whales in the sub-Antarctic Auckland and Campbell Islands far to the south of New Zealand but few around New Zealand's coast," she said.

But now, a handful of the whales have started to calve around New Zealand.

Dr Carroll said the sightings of the whales could be a sign they are rediscovering mainland New Zealand.

"So it's vital that we do all we can to make space for them in our coastal waters so that as they begin to return, they will pass that knowledge to the next generation," she said.

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