Reports of orcas launching attacks on yachts have made waves in the news recently.
This novel behavior – orcas ramming boats – has spawned a flurry of orca memes and prompted speculation about the root of this strange behavior.
While we still don’t know why orcas are attacking boats, the phenomenon spotlights a fascinating aspect of the animal world: the emergence and spread of culture.
Do Animals Have Culture?
Culture, once thought to be a unique characteristic of humans, is actually found throughout the animal kingdom.
From minuscule fruit flies to massive whales, the ability to learn from others makes animals more adaptable, which is especially valuable in Earth’s current human-dominated era. Yet, there are still myriad mysteries surrounding animal culture and its role in species survival in a changing world.
What Is Animal Culture?
Like in humans, animal culture includes behaviors, traditions and knowledge shared between individuals, and it gets passed down through generations.
Living in social groups allows many species to engage in collective activities that would be challenging to accomplish alone. Prairie dogs, for example, live in colonies where one member keeps watch for predators while the others go about their daily tasks.
Within social groups, animals can learn by watching and imitating one another’s behavior. By observing more experienced members of the group, animals can note successes and failures without having to personally face the associated risks with certain behaviors.
Read More: Animals Share Human-like Hallmarks of Speech
Examples of Animal Culture
Culture encompasses a wide range of practices, including communication methods, tool use and ways of socially interacting. Below are a few species and their unique cultural practices:
Honey bees communicate with special "waggle dances" that tell other bees about the location, distance and quality of food. While basic waggle dances are innate, bees that don’t learn waggle dances from others appear to have less coordinated dances that scientists believe convey less information.
In Australia, cockatoos are coping with human encroachment by teaching each other how to open trash can lids and access human food scraps.
Researchers have observed some bottlenose dolphins using sponges as hunting tools; DNA evidence indicates this learned behavior is passed down almost exclusively between mothers and their daughters.
Sperm whales use social learning to acquire unique “codas”, click-like communication patterns, that scientists believe are the basis for group formation in the broader sperm whale society.
Read More: Can Animals Learn Language Like Humans Do?
A Second Inheritance System
Culture plays a crucial role in allowing social animals to quickly adapt to changing environments.
Unlike genetic inheritance, which involves the transfer of favorable traits from parents to offspring, culture can emerge and spread within a single generation.
This so-called “second inheritance system” allows groups to swiftly adopt new practices and adapt to a dynamic environment.
Read More: 5 of the World's Most Intelligent Animals
Threats to Animal Culture
While animal culture can enhance a species’ resilience to human disturbance, human alterations to the environment can also impede the spread of culture.
Habitat loss, light and sound pollution, climate change, and hunting can limit the development of new behaviors or disrupt animal social dynamics. For instance, noise from boat traffic causes sperm whales to communicate less, which scientists believe could make their groups less cohesive.
Recognizing the significance of animal culture, there is a growing movement among global conservation groups to adopt policies that protect the unique cultural traditions within species.