7 Cultured Animals That Share Knowledge

We're not alone

Photo: By Irina No/Shutterstock

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 novel invention, creative intelligence and cultural transmission throughout the animal kingdom. In fact, the types of creatures that exhibit culture are so varied that researchers are beginning to suspect that culture may be far more common in nature than we ever thought possible. Here's our list of seven examples of cultural animals. (Text: Bryan Nelson)

Cetaceans

Rennett Stowe/Flickr.

Second only to primates, cultures in dolphins, whales and porpoises are diverse and advanced. Some of the best-studied cultural behaviors among cetaceans are their vocalizations. Bottlenose dolphin, humpback whale, killer whale, and sperm whale songs and clicks are widely unique among different groups. In fact, researchers now acknowledge that these vocal differences are sufficient enough to be considered different dialects. Furthermore, different groups of some species, such as orcas, exhibit radically unique hunting techniques, and even diverse tastes in food, including the proclivity to hunt entirely different kinds of prey than other groups.

Monkeys

cameranew/iStockphoto.

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. Thus, these monkeys were essentially the first animals ever acknowledged as having culture. Imanishi's study was particularly revelatory because it traced a specific behavior, in this case the act of washing potatoes before eating them, from its origin as a novel invention through several generations of transmission. That remarkable potato-washing behavior was even adjusted and improved by the monkey culture as time went on, as they learned that washing their potatoes in salt water made them taste better.

Parrots

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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. In particular, their ability to imitate is impressive, as any owner of a loud parrot would contest ("Hello!"). Since imitation is such a crucial way that behavior can be transmitted culturally, it is perhaps not surprising that different groups of parrots can exhibit differences in their vocalizations, social behavior and feeding methods.

Songbirds

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Songbirds such as starlings, cowbirds and sparrows aren't born knowing how to sing their particular songs. Rather, they imitate them from others. This has led to amazing song diversity among different groups of birds, so much diversity that many researchers now acknowledge that songbirds are on par with cetaceans in their ability to generate unique dialects.

Guppies

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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. In other words, through the power of imitation, guppy mating behavior is cultural in that mate preference can be transmitted across a population uniquely. (By comparison, the behavior ought to be familiar to anyone who has a teenager.)

Rats

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The most widely discussed research on rat culture was performed by Joseph Terkel in 1991 on a species of black rat that he had originally observed in the wild in Israel. 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. After further study revealed that this group of rats did not exhibit this behavior unless they were taught by other rats, it was evident that the behavior was indicative of culture.

The behavior of all these different animals is evidence that animal culture is probably far more widespread among mammalian species than acknowledged. As scientists perform more definitive studies looking for culture among other mammals, this list could become a lot longer.

Apes

Wiki Commons/GNU.

The higher primates such as chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, orangutans, gibbons and siamangs 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 exhibited culture was a study on social grooming among Tanzanian chimps by researchers William McGrew and Caroline Tutin, which revealed that different groups of chimpanzees exhibit unique grooming behaviors. Today, more than 40 populations of chimpanzees have been thoroughly studied, and scientists have found at least 65 categories of behaviors that are culturally transmitted, including varied technology, communication, play, food gathering or eating methods, and social behavior.