Wednesday 7 April 2021

NEW SCIENTIST: Animals have culture

 fruit flies

Fruit flies demonstrate a form of culture

Jorge Garcia/VWPics/Alamy

Culture was once thought to be restricted to humans. But we are discovering more and more examples in animals. In a paper reviewing evidence from several earlier studies that is published in Science this week, zoologist Andrew Whiten at the University of St Andrews, UK, writes that there has been “an explosion of discoveries” showing that animal culture is far more widespread and diverse than we imagined. New Scientist quizzed him about the work.

Michael Le Page: Many readers will know that apes and whales have culture, such as tool use in chimpanzees, but you say that even insects have it

Andrew Whiten: That is the big surprise. The evidence was really just published in the last few years. So some of us are still reeling from that and thinking, “Well, wow, culture is everywhere.” It’s the reach of animal culture across an increasing range of species that’s one of the main points of my paper.

Can you give an example of insect culture?

There’s good evidence for what’s called mate choice copying in fruit flies. So if female fruit flies watch a male who’s been dusted green by experimenters mate with a female, later on, if given a choice, those females will prefer green-dusted males. The virgin females are learning, “If all the girls like this kind of chap, he must be a good one to go for.” The reason that you can talk about cultural transmission is that if other females watch those females mating, they inherit that same bias, and so on. It is like an incipient tradition.

In bumblebees there are examples of particular foraging techniques that again pass from bumblebee to bumblebee to bumblebee.

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