Culture shock: how loss of animals' shared knowledge threatens their survival

In the late 1800s, North Atlantic right-walled whales were being slaughtered by the thousands at the height of whaling. Whalers took more than bones and flesh from the ocean with each carcass being hauled onto the deck. Whalers who killed whales had unique memories about their hunting methods, feeding areas, and communication styles. This knowledge was passed down through generations and shared among peers. Although the critically endangered whale continues to live, much of its cultural knowledge is now lost.Professor Hal Whitehead, a Dalhousie University marine biologist, said that whales are one of the animals with high cultural values. He says that culture is the learning of others so that people behave in the same way.Individuals who are knowledgeable, such as hunters, can be removed. This can have a wider impact on Philippa Brakes, Whale and Dolphin ConservationNorth Atlantic right whales have been removed from many of their ancestral feeding grounds. Whitehead believes this could be due to the loss of cultural knowledge in these areas after whaling decimated their populations. If human activity reduces the remaining feeding areas, this could lead to problems for the species. It would make it difficult for them to know where the best hunting opportunities are. He says that the more potential feeding areas they have, the greater their chances of finding the food they need.The ocean isn't the only place where animal culture can be found. Animals such as birds, bees and naked mole-rats have been shown to learn socially and form cultures. Researchers are beginning to understand the importance of animal culture for conservation efforts.It is possible that whaling has wiped out the cultural knowledge of many North Atlantic right whales, causing their disappearance from ancestral feeding grounds. Photograph by Nick Hawkins/NPL/AlamyWhitehead was a pioneer in calling for the conservation of animal culture. He argues that cultural diversity provides a species with a wider range of behavioural tools when faced with new challenges. This is what we see with humans: the strength of diversity in our cultures.Whitehead is a member of the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada. This body decides which species should be endangered. He says that the most difficult thing is to determine how to divide up a species' population. Plains caribou do better than mountain caribou when it comes to caribou. Whitehead questions if we should evaluate mountain caribou differently than other species.This decision is usually made by comparing the genetic differences between the groups. One thing I have been advocating is that cultural information is important.Young mountain caribou in Stone Mountain provincial park, British Columbia, Canada. Photograph by Pierre Longnus/Getty ImagesAs diversity is essential for survival, conservation efforts are designed to preserve species diversity. Whitehead says species diversity could be defined as what it does, how its looks, and its physiology. While a lot of the diversity is genetically determined, some is culturally determined.A population's behavior can have a huge impact on its environment. Whitehead says that if all mountain caribou were gone, it could have a significant impact on the ecology of several mountain tops.Philippa Brakes was a research fellow at Whale and Dolphin Conservation after Whiteheads' research into whale culture gave her a lightbulb moment. Brakes, a University of Exeter PhD student, co-authored a paper in April that argued that conservation efforts should take into account how culture influences reproduction, dispersal, and survivorship.Brakes says it is important to understand who has cultural knowledge within a population. She cites the example of African elephant herds. She says that the fertility rate of younger females is affected by the age of the matriarch. The matriarch's perception of water holes, good foraging, and other social units has a direct effect on the fertility rates of younger females in the herd.You can have a wider impact on your population if you eliminate individuals with knowledge (e.g. hunting).The Amboseli national park in Kenya is home to elephants who make their way to a water hole. The matriarch's experience in herd life increases the fertility rate for younger females. Photograph: Tony Karumba/AFP/Getty ImagesThere may be situations where a population can be re-educated if it has lost its cultural knowledge.A human being taken from their home and stripped of all they have learned from others would be unable to survive without support. Similar results are seen in golden lion tamarins (a small Brazilian monkey).In the 1970s, the population of golden lion tamarins had dropped to 200 individuals due to habitat destruction and pet trade. Captive breeding was overseen by 43 institutions from eight countries. This increased their numbers until conservationists were able reintroduce them into the wild in 1984. The reintroduced Tamarins suffered a low survival rate and had difficulty adapting to their new environment. This led to most of the losses. Brakes says that such efforts are characterized by high casualties.The tamarin researchers devised an intensive post-release program that included supplementary feeding, nest sites and provision of nest sites. This allowed the monkeys to develop survival skills in the jungle. The survival rate was doubled by this helping hand, which was a great start. The species did not thrive until the next generation. Brakes says that the survival rate for the next generation was 70% because they were able to learn in the wild and then share their knowledge. In 2003, the endangered golden lion tamarin was made critically endangered by intensive conservation efforts.As the younger generations learned survival skills from their elders, the survival rate for golden lion tamarins in the wild increased, so did their survival rate. Photograph: Andreia Martins/APBrakes says that although this research is encouraging, animal culture is becoming extinct more quickly than it's being rekindled.As culture disappears before our eyes, we are only beginning to understand it in other species.For the most up-to-date news, follow Phoebe Weston or Patrick Greenfield as biodiversity reporters on Twitter.