- In a paper published in Science last month, an international team of researchers argues that the growing body of evidence on the importance of social learning and animal cultures must be taken more fully into account in order to improve wildlife conservation efforts.
- “Animal culture” consists of information and behaviors shared amongst members of a wildlife community, such as a flock of migratory birds, a herd of elephants, or a pod of whales. For whooping cranes to retain knowledge of migration routes across generations, for instance, this knowledge must be passed between members of the flock through what scientists call “social learning.”
- Despite the mounting evidence of the far-reaching implications of social learning for the preservation of wildlife, however, international policy forums that devise large-scale conservation strategies “have so far not engaged substantially with the challenges and opportunities presented by this new scientific perspective,” the researchers note.
There’s a chimpanzee population in Western Africa that uses tools to crack open nuts. Scientists theorize that this behavior provides the chimps with access to an important source of food during the dry season, so it’s no wonder that this behavior has been passed down from generation to generation.
This is just one example of the many distinct cultures that wildlife populations around the world have developed in order to adapt and thrive in their environments.
In a paper published in Science last month, an international team of researchers argues that the growing body of evidence on the importance of social learning and animal cultures must be taken more fully into account in order to improve wildlife conservation efforts.
“Animal culture” consists of information and behaviors shared amongst members of a wildlife community, such as a flock of migratory birds, a herd of elephants, or a pod of whales. For whooping cranes to retain knowledge of migration routes across generations, for instance, this knowledge must be passed between members of the flock through what scientists call “social learning.”
The authors of the Science paper, led by Philippa Brakes of the University of Exeter in the UK, cite a number of implications that the transmission of behaviors and knowledge through social learning can have for a species’ conservation, ranging from positive — “e.g., adaptive exploitation of a new food source” — to negative — “e.g., increasing conflict with humans, such as when sperm whales learn to remove fish from longlines.” Social learning can lead to distinct cultures amongst subpopulations, “erecting social barriers” between, say, different vocal clans of sperm whales — and this “cultural segregation” can mean that separate groups of animals can have very different foraging strategies, which in turn affects their ability to cope with environmental change. It can also lead to the “increased importance of key individuals as repositories of accumulated knowledge,” meaning that the targeted protection of, as an example, certain African elephant matriarchs, can be crucial to the preservation of a particular herd of elephants.
Thus, animal culture “can have important consequences for the survival and reproduction of individuals, social groups, and potentially, entire populations,” the authors write. “Understanding the importance of behavioral diversity will benefit conservation policies both when assessing the status of potentially vulnerable populations (e.g., when delineating units to conserve, by accounting for cultural segregation) and when devising effective conservation strategies (e.g., by identifying key repositories of social knowledge).”
These types of insights can help humans design effective wildlife conservation interventions. “Positive conservation outcomes can depend on the restoration of cultural knowledge,” Brakes and team add in the paper. “For example, because whooping cranes learn migratory routes socially, human surrogates in ultralight aircraft can guide naïve, captive-bred birds along their first migration, potentially boosting the effectiveness of reintroduction programs.”
Despite the mounting evidence of the far-reaching implications of social learning for the preservation of wildlife, however, international policy forums that devise large-scale conservation strategies “have so far not engaged substantially with the challenges and opportunities presented by this new scientific perspective,” the researchers note. The result is that conservation strategies have tended to be largely focused on demographic-level responses by wildlife species to their changing environments and the preservation of genetically defined groups of animals deemed evolutionarily significant.
“Beyond genes, knowledge is also an important currency for wildlife,” Brakes said in a statement. “As well as conserving genetic diversity, we must work towards maintaining cultural diversity within animal populations, as a reservoir for resilience and adaptation. This is an important reframing of our understanding of the natural world, which will necessitate changes in international wildlife law.”
Brakes and colleagues highlight the United Nations Environment Programme’s Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS, often referred to simply as the Bonn Convention) as one of the few international policy-making bodies that is applying our understanding of animal cultures to better protect the world’s wildlife, in this case migratory species.
“This new frontier of animal culture and social complexity opens a fascinating and innovative perspective on how we consider animals; from single components of population models to individuals who offer specific contributions to the rest of the social group,” Dr. Fernando Spina, chair of the CMS Scientific Council and a co-author of the Science paper, said in a statement. “When thinking of strategies to conserve migratory animals, which is the main mission of CMS at the global level, with individual animals visiting different countries along their annual cycle, cultural transmission of knowledge on how to fulfill their incredible migratory journeys is a new component environmental policies should fully take into account.”
The authors argue that it is important for other international environmental agreements, such as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) and the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), to consider animal culture in their scientific assessments and policy decision-making. “We see opportunities to extend our approach beyond species and issues currently covered by CMS, for example, when assessing the sustainability of exports and trade through CITES processes,” they write. “Such consideration is timely, because 2020 is the final year of the United Nations Decade on Biodiversity, when governments will negotiate the Post-2020 Biodiversity Framework.”
Study co-author Christian Rutz, a professor at the University of St Andrews in the UK, called our growing understanding of the conservation significance of animals’ social lives “an incredibly important development,” adding: “Decades of research on animal cultures are now being put to good use in conservation science and policy making, and we have a much better idea of what knowledge gaps still need filling.”
• Brakes, P. et al. (2019). Animal cultures matter for conservation. Science, 363(6431), 1032-1034. doi:10.1126/science.aaw3557
This story first appeared on Mongabay
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