Animals Can Learn Over Generations

©. Tom Reichner/Shutterstock

Intergenerational learning isn't just a human thing.

A couple years ago, I noticed some stray cats doing something strange in my backyard. A mother cat crouched in the weeds, watching her two kittens play on the other side of the backyard. After waiting a few minutes, she suddenly sprinted across the yard and pounced on one of her children. For a second, I wondered if I was about to see something horrific. But after a moment, the mama cat jumped away and snuck back into the weeds. Then she pounced again.

She's teaching them to hunt, I realized. After that day, the kittens started play hunting. They'd sneak up and pounce on one another, practicing for adulthood.

I've heard people say that animals are all about instinct, that they can't form thoughts or make plans. But animals like these cats beg to differ. Humans aren't the only ones teaching and learning. A new study took this idea to a whole new level, finding that wild bighorn sheep and moose learn how to migrate over generations.

"The transmission of behavioural traditions by learning from others — cultural learning — was once thought to be a uniquely human attribute," wrote Andrew Whiten, a zoologist at the University of St, Andrews in Scotland. "However, evidence increasingly indicates that this phenomenon is widespread among animals, shaping behaviours from foraging for food to mate choice to predator avoidance."

Bighorn sheep normally migrate in the spring to find better food. So a group of scientists used GPS collars and satellites to compared recently relocated herds to ones that had been living in the same area for a long time. They wanted to see which groups found the best food the fastest.

The researchers found that the recently relocated herds were much worse at migrating than the established ones. In fact, when animals had been moved to totally new to a location, they usually didn't migrate at all. It took generations for them to start migrating again. In fact, the scientists found that it takes 200 years for a herd to acquire top migrating skills.

"Individuals might acquire some initial surfing knowledge by personal learning, which then becomes available to their young through social learning, and the next generation might build on this knowledge through further exploration," Whiten continued. "The refinement of skills in the next generation could be similarly enhanced, and so on."

The study also has some serious implications for conservation. Apparently, if you relocate animals — on purpose, or through habitat destruction — you're not just inconveniencing them for the moment. You're robbing them of centuries of knowledge.