Culture -- Not Just a Human Thing

Many animals not only possess aspects of culture, but also pass it along.

Culture is such a human-centric concept that most definitions imply only people can have it, but new research on non-human species is finding that many animals not only possess aspects of culture, but also pass it along.

A striking example is described in the latest issue of the journal Science. Vervet monkeys were found to seek out "local knowledge" when visiting a new place. In this case, they changed their eating habits to conform to those of another monkey group.

Co-author Andrew Whiten of the University of St. Andrews explained, "'When in Rome, do as the Romans do.' Our findings suggest that a willingness to conform to what all those around you are doing when you visit a different culture is a disposition shared with other primates."

The same issue of Science also includes a study on how humpback whales are able to pass on hunting techniques to each other, just as humans do.

Observations of a community of humpback whales off the coast of New England found that they learned to hunt for new prey (sand lance, a type of fish) by watching other whales smash their tails on the water before diving to produce bubble nets trapping the fish.

"Our study really shows how vital cultural transmission is in humpback populations-not only do they learn their famous songs from each other, they also learn feeding techniques that allow them to buffer the effects of changing ecology," said co-author Luke Rendell, a lecturer in the School of Biology at the University of St. Andrews.

Culture is sometimes defined as the characteristics of a particular group (usually of people), exemplified by things like communication skills, social habits and the arts.

Birds once again challenge the human-only association, given their sophisticated vocalizing, songs and even dancing skills. Snowball, a cockatoo, was the first non-human found to be capable of "beat induction," meaning perceiving music and synchronizing body movements to a beat.

Certain African grey parrots, like "Alex" who belonged to researcher Irene Pepperberg, can count and talk. Pepperberg told Discovery News that Alex, who died suddenly in 2007, "had the intelligence of a 5-year-old human and the emotional maturity of a 2-year-old." He could even understand a numerical concept akin to zero, which is an abstract notion that people don't typically grasp until age three or four.

The willingness to conform to what those around you are doing, as described by Whiten, extends to bonobos. Zanna Clay, a researcher at Emory University and colleagues, told Discovery News how these primates vocally rate the food they encounter, with calls similar to human exclamations "Yum!" and "Ewww."

"Finding food is one of the most important challenges to any wild animal, and thus any signal indicating the discovery of food may provide useful information to receivers," Clay explained. "If variation in the vocal sequences provides information about food quality, receivers may be able to use this to decide whether to abandon a current activity or not."

Non-human primate technologies are improving and spreading, albeit in their own humble and natural ways. Food preparation techniques, for example, are on the uptick.

The Julia Child of the macaque world might have been Imo, now deceased, who learned that rinsing potatoes in saltwater not only cleaned them, but gave them a tasty salty flavor. In about a decade, nearly her entire family -- including new generations -- copied Imo's "recipe."

After years of studying the macaques on the island of Koshima, Japan, researcher Masao Kawai documented the discovery in the journal Primates.

Rendell, in an earlier study published in the journal Behavior Genetics, determined that sperm whales in the Pacific belong to one of five clans, with each clan using a different dialect. Often it's suspected that animal behaviors and traits are simply inherited, meaning there is some genetic "programming" underlining them.

Rendell and his team, using DNA analysis, found this wasn't the case.

"All the evidence for culture relies on methods of exclusion," he said. "It's very difficult to actually prove cultural transmission, but our finding isn't consistent with anything other than cultural dialects."

Intelligence is difficult to measure, as it's just one component of an individual or species' survival. Nevertheless, based on brain size, aptitude and other factors, dolphins are widely regarded as being the second-most intelligent animals, with only humans displaying greater brainpower.

Dolphins even share their talents with humans, and not just in marine park shows. Certain bottlenose dolphins in Laguna, southern Brazil, have taught themselves to work as a team with artisanal fishermen, creating a win-win for both the marine mammals and humans.

"Through highly synchronized behavior with humans, cooperative dolphins in Laguna drive mullet schools towards a line of fishermen and 'signal,' via stereotyped head slaps or tail slaps, when and where fishermen should throw their nets," explained researcher Fabio Daura-Jorge of the Federal University of Santa Catarina.

Fish that escape the nets often swim right into the mouths of dolphins, so all benefit from the cooperative effort.

Sometimes social learning is limited to families, and probably for good reason. In the wild, individuals do not necessarily want to broadcast their survival techniques, which could be copied and then used by others to the originator's detriment. This holds true even among humans, who, for example, protect patents for certain technologies.

Black rats inhabiting the Jerusalem Pine forests in Israel have learned to "employ an adept and sequential technique" for stripping pine cone scales in order to extract nutritious seeds, according to a paper in the journal Mammalia. "The stripping technique was found to be culturally transmitted from mothers to their pups only," wrote authors O. Zohar and J. Terkel.

Since culture often involves shared knowledge, cooperation between individuals -- in families, social groups, between different populations and even between different species -- is key.

Ants and other social insects are arguably more successful at cooperating than any other creatures. With the rise of global networking, however, humans might catch up with them.

Luke McNally, a member of Trinity College Dublin's Theoretical Ecology Research Group, told Discovery News "it is conceivable that, with the rise of global networking, the demands of keeping track of an ever-growing number of social interactions may select for greater social intellect, but we'll have to wait and see!"

Neanderthal culture and purebred Neanderthals died out between 35,000 and 30,000 years ago, but they certainly made their mark before vanishing.

Anthropologists believe Neanderthals had fashion, art, music, tools and many other things that we commonly associate with Homo sapiens culture. Could our species have wiped out Neanderthal culture via ethnic cleansing? New research suggests that is possible.

Anthropologist Silvana Condemi, CNRS research director at the University of Ai-Marseille, told Discovery News that remains of an individual who lived in northern Italy 40,000 to 30,000 years ago are believed to be that of a human/Neanderthal hybrid. DNA evidence points to a possible Homo sapiens rape of a Neanderthal female. But whatever happened to the Neanderthals, they did not give up their culture.

The remains and other evidence, Condemi said, form "an important support to the hypothesis of a slow process of replacement of Neanderthals by the invading modern human populations, as well as additional evidence of the upholding of the Neanderthals cultural identity."