8 Cultured Animals That Share Knowledge

The ability to transmit learned behavior between generations is not limited to humans.

Three bottlenose dolphins near the surface of the water

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Culture and the ability to transmit novel learned behavior from one generation to the next was once believed to be a trait unique to humans. But animal research over the last 75 years has revealed a plethora of examples of cultural transmission throughout the animal kingdom. Some of the creatures that exhibit culture are expected, like dolphins and chimpanzees, while others are surprising, like songbirds and guppies. But they are so varied that scientists suspect that culture may be far more common in nature than we ever thought possible.

Here are eight examples of animals that exhibit culture in their everyday lives.

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Japanese Macaques

Two Japanese macaques standing in water, one cleaning the other

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A study of Japanese macaques in the 1940s by animal researcher Kinji Imanishi was the first instance where the word “culture” was used to describe animal behavior. What began as an observation of monkeys washing sweet potatoes before eating them continued, as more and more generations of macaques have kept up the potato-washing tradition.

Other cultural behaviors displayed by Japanese macaques include the kindness that mothers and daughters exhibit toward each other by offering protection from predators and the sharing of food. The macaques also groom one another as a form of bonding, and use particular calls to request or offer grooming of other monkeys.

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A group of five beluga whales swimming underwater in Canada

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Second only to primates, cultures in whales and other cetaceans are diverse and advanced. A genetic study of beluga whales in the North Pacific revealed that families of whales return to the same locations every year for generations. Researchers believe that the passing down of information about where to travel each year during their long migrations is shared between female belugas and their calves.

Their advanced cultural behavior is thought to be rooted in their intricate vocalizations, earning them the nickname "canaries of the sea." Belugas use their high frequency chirps and squeals for communication and echolocation.

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Two green macaws on a branch talking to each other

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Parrots are among the most intelligent animals on the planet, and most species are also highly social and exhibit complex social behavior. Humans have been impressed by their ability to imitate language and learn tricks.

But studies of parrots have identified abilities beyond imitation; parrots can display levels of logic and understanding similar to very young children. They have social structures and hierarchies, which require each bird to comprehend its place relative to others by recognizing and remembering group members. Further, parrots have been observed showing prosocial behavior, sharing food opportunities with other parrots, and receiving the same in return.

Since imitation is such a crucial way that behavior can be transmitted culturally, it is not surprising that different groups of parrots exhibit differences in their vocalizations, social behavior, feeding methods, and intelligence.

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Two house sparrows on a branch with green and pink leaves with a clear blue sky behind them

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Songbirds such as warblers, thrushes, and sparrows aren't born knowing how to sing their special songs. Rather, they begin to learn them while in the nest. During this critical period, songbird hatchlings listen to other birds around them and begin to imitate their vocalizations. They practice until they match perfectly.

The importance of learning how to sing is multifold: they use their sounds to attract mates and to warn predators. In tropical areas, both male and female songbirds sing; while in more temperate zones, it's the males that perform most of the songs. Some songbirds, like mockingbirds and catbirds, learn to imitate other sounds, like those of frogs and cats, even car alarms.

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Two guppies swimming near a piece of wood in a fish tank

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Even the tiny guppy displays evidence of cultural transmission. Guppies are known for their diverse mating behaviors, whereby females tend to copy other females in choosing their preferred mate. If one female likes a particular mate, then other females will take notice—as many as 85%. The offspring of those females also tended to be copiers, unlike the offspring of the 15%, which exhibited a more independent nature. In other words, through the power of imitation, guppy mating behavior is cultural in that mate preference can be uniquely transmitted across a population.

Female guppies also display selectivity when choosing a mate to prevent inbreeding, indicating that guppies recognize their close relations. Researchers also discovered that male Trinidadian guppies try to help their brothers when it comes to mating, by swimming in front of other males attempting to mate with the same female their brother has selected.

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A brown rat surrounded by small green plants

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The study of the existence of culture in rats has expanded from research performed by Joseph Terkel in 1991. Terkel noticed that the rats he observed exhibited a unique kind of feeding behavior; they systematically stripped off pine cone scales from pine cones, a favorite food, prior to eating. His study revealed that the rats did not exhibit this behavior unless they were taught by other rats, which provided evidence that the behavior was indicative of culture.

Several examples of rats transmitting knowledge to others within the species exist in the wild. Rats are known to share information about what foods are toxic, which areas are safe to procure food (communicated by urine markings), and how to hunt. Much of their knowledge acquisition occurs by watching others.

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A young chimpanzee grooming an older chimpanzee sitting on a branch

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Higher primates such as chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, and orangutans are the animals most like humans, and researchers looking for clues about culture in animals have focused a considerable amount of attention on them. The first widespread acknowledgment that apes exhibit culture was a study on social grooming among Tanzanian chimps.

Studied extensively in the wild, scientists have found that chimpanzees share an elaborate communication system with one another using gestures, unique vocalizations, facial expressions, and body language to convey information. Lower-ranking members of a group will often groom higher-ranking members in hopes of gaining protection and acceptance. This social learning extends to behaviors including play, gathering food, eating, and communication.

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A group of Indo-Pacific bottle nose dolphins swimming near the water's surface

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Among cetaceans, bottlenose dolphins display the strongest evidence of possessing culture. While some behaviors, like vocalization and catching prey, seem to be passed from mother to calf, others, scientists discovered, are gained from peers.

Bottlenose dolphins in Shark Bay, Western Australia were observed using large conical seashells to catch fish. This unique “fishing” method was not one gained from their mothers, but learned from other dolphins in their pod. Another example is "tail-walking," which a dolphin named Billie learned when she spent some time in captivity and observed performing dolphins. Back in the wild, she taught this trick to others, but eventually the "fad" died out.