New Scientist – November 20th 2010, Culture Club

A monkey washing a sweet potato in the sea before eating it.

Humans have always thought that the only difference between us and the animals of the world was our intelligence and culture. It has already been proven we are not the only mentally developed race out there, but what about culture. Well, animals have that too. Mind you, none of them go to the opera or write poems, but they have culture in the sense of traditions such as languages, fashion, cuisine and games. Chimps were one of the animals watched for this culture. After all environmental changes were taken out of account, such as a chimp building his nest higher up in the trees because of predators, many things such as the method of making tools, and grooming fashions were almost exclusive to different clans. The scientists heading this project also had an experiment with birds. Birds were believed to have no culture, apart from maybe learning songs from each other, but when the eggs of two different species were swapped, the younglings picked up traits from their foster parents and not their species (blue tits and great tits were used). It was remarked that social learning, and learning from potential role-models was wide-spread in the animal kingdom. However, this can be dangerous at times, when the traditions are non changing because of a locked pattern of copying each other. With us humans constantly changing and degrading their environments, some animals may find themselves using unsuitable methods to hunt, or eat, or even find homes. This was mostly seen in fish, who have very high social learning abilities. Their problem is that they always learn from the older generation, and so they have not changed their ways for a long time. This could become potentially lethal for them, when the sea is becoming more polluted, and we humans are also pillaging the sea for fish.

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