From whales to monkeys, elephants and even fruit flies, researchers are increasingly recognising animal culture and its role in conservation efforts
At the peak of the whaling industry, in the late 1800s, North Atlantic right whales were slaughtered in their thousands. With each carcass hauled on to the deck, whalers were taking more than just bones and flesh out of the ocean. The slaughtered whales had unique memories of feeding grounds, hunting techniques and communication styles; knowledge acquired over centuries, passed down through the generations, and shared between peers. The critically endangered whale clings on, but much of the species’ cultural knowledge is now extinct.
Whales are among the many animals known to be highly cultural, says Prof Hal Whitehead, a marine biologist at Dalhousie University. “Culture is what individuals learn from each other, so that a bunch of individuals behave in a similar way,” he says.