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SOURCE: The Guardian

DATE: August 13, 2021

SNIP: 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.

North Atlantic right whales are no longer found in many of their ancestral feeding grounds. Whitehead suspects this may be because the cultural knowledge of these places was lost when populations were wiped out by whaling. This loss could spell trouble for the species if human activity degrades their remaining feeding grounds, making it hard for the whales to predict where good hunting is. “The more possible feeding grounds they have, the more likely they are to find somewhere they can get the food they need,” he says.

Animal culture is not limited to the ocean. Birds, bees, naked mole-rats, fish and even fruit flies are among those that have been found to learn socially and create cultures. As the list grows, researchers are starting to understand animal culture as critical to many conservation efforts.

Whitehead was an early voice calling for animal culture to be taken seriously in conservation. This is because cultural diversity gives a species a larger behavioural toolkit when facing new challenges, he argues. “We recognise this with humans, that the diversity of our cultures is a strength.”

Whitehead is a member of the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada, a body that decides which species are endangered. “The most difficult thing we do is to decide how to divide a population of a species up,” he says. With caribou, for example, plains caribou are doing better than mountain caribou. “Do we assess the mountain caribou differently from the others?” Whitehead asks.

Typically, this decision is made by assessing how genetically different the groups are. “One of the things I’ve been pushing is the idea that cultural information is also important.”

Whitehead’s research into whale culture provided a lightbulb moment for Philippa Brakes, a research fellow at Whale and Dolphin Conservation. Brakes, a PhD student at the University of Exeter, published a paper with colleagues in April, which argues that conservation efforts should consider how culture affects reproduction, dispersal and survivorship.

Understanding who holds cultural knowledge in a population can be key, says Brakes, who cites African elephant herds as an example. “The age of the matriarch in the herd has a significant [positive] influence on the fertility rate of the younger females,” she says. “The [matriarch] female’s experience of where water holes are, where good foraging is, and also which other social units are friendly has a demonstrable knock-on effect on the fertility rate of the younger females in her herd.

“If you remove individuals who have knowledge, through hunting for example, that can have a much wider knock-on effect than just minus one from your population.”

“We are just starting to understand what culture is in other species and just starting to develop methods for measuring and analysing culture, as we are seeing it disappear before our eyes.”