Why animal culture matters for conservation: a roadmap

An international group of researchers working on a wide range of species, from elephants and crows to whales and chimpanzees, argues that the cultural knowledge of some animals needs to be taken into consideration for their conservation.

The group highlighted the policy implications of animal culture in a 2019 Science paper and now provide an in-depth analysis with a roadmap for integrating animal culture into conservation, in a review, published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B. They argue that viewing behavioural variation through the lens of animal culture can provide new insights for conservation management.

Like humans, many species learn from each other. For example, meerkat pups learn how to hunt scorpions by copying adults, and some whales learn migratory routes from their mothers. Over time, learned behaviour can create differences between groups of animals that reflects different cultures which shape how animals forage, migrate or communicate. Beyond conserving genetic diversity, the authors argue that understanding these socially learned behavioural differences between groups can guide decisions on how to define units (groups) to protect. It can also inform practical conservation measures, such as teaching anti-predator behaviours, or even seeding migratory routes for animals undergoing reintroduction to the wild.

“Conservation practice has long been guided by genetics and ecology that assess how unique or connected different groups of animals are” says lead author Philippa Brakes of Whale and Dolphin Conservation. “We show that social learning and animal culture is another important facet of biology that can guide effective conservation strategies.”

Dr Sally Keith, co-author from Lancaster University, said: “Animals need to adapt or move to survive in today’s constantly changing environmental conditions. The speed at which they do this can be influenced by how easily they innovate and their capacity to learn from each other. By considering these aspects of animal culture in our conservation strategies, we can potentially improve outcomes for a wide range of species.”

Social learning and animal culture are particularly important for conservation in a rapidly changing world. “By conserving the ability of populations and groups of animals to socially learn, we help ensure they have the ability to rapidly learn how to exploit new food or habitat resources”, says corresponding author Emma Carroll of the University of Auckland. “Conversely, some species are culturally ‘conservative’ which may mean they focus on key resources, like particular types of food, that need to be conserved.”

The paper presents a framework to help guide researchers, conservation practitioners and policy makers, by providing insights on monitoring behavioural variation, methods to determine if culture is present and the implications for species conservation and management. For example, socially learned migration routes by beluga whales may be important to prevent entrapment in sea ice; understanding how crop-raiding behaviour in elephants is spread across social groups can assist in the management of these behaviours; and social learning may even provide opportunities for rapid assessment, for example in New Caledonian crows, where vocal dialects may provide ‘markers’ for rapidly mapping variation in tool-assisted foraging behaviour.

“Human activities can both threaten existing cultures and provide an opportunity for new cultural behaviour”, says senior author Ellen Garland of the University of St Andrews. “We hope this work will encourage others to re-examine their data using a cultural lens to investigate whether social learning is important for managing and conserving their species.”

The Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS) – widely known as the ‘Bonn Convention’ – which operates under the aegis of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), has been a pioneer in this field, spearheading efforts to use scientific knowledge on animal cultures to improve the conservation of migratory species. The paper draws on extensive existing evidence of animal culture and social learning to highlight the crucial role that cultural transmission can play in guiding effective conservation responses.

DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2020.2718

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