Social and cultural lives of animals vital tool for conservation

Young animals learn social and cultural behaviours from the adults around them just like humans do. Scientists say these learned social behaviours are a powerful conservation tool.

University of Auckland Auckland Islands Research Team 2009

Young animals learn social and cultural behaviours from the adults around them just like humans do. Now scientists say these learned behaviours are a powerful tool for conservation.

A team of international researchers, publishing in Science, say animals such as whales, elephants and some species of birds use social learning to pass on skills and knowledge to successive generations. This knowledge can be vital to survival of the species.

“The knowledge many animals have of migratory routes or where best to find food at certain times of the year is transmitted through social learning so that successful conservation for these species depends on keeping this knowledge alive within a population,” says one of the authors of the paper, Rutherford Discovery Fellow Dr Emma Carroll from the University of Auckland.

New Zealand southern right whales for example are born in their mother’s preferred wintering grounds and travel with her to her preferred summer feeding ground. Learning migratory destinations in this way in their first year of life is considered a form of ‘migratory culture’.

But this cultural knowledge was lost as both old and young whales were killed when commercial whaling decimated the population in the 1800s.

“That’s why we see many right whales in the sub-Antarctic Auckland and Campbell Islands far to the south of New Zealand but few around New Zealand’s coast,” Dr Carroll says. “The whales simply stopped learning those migratory routes.”

Over the years a handful of female southern right whales have returned to calve around New Zealand while the male Matariki right whale which visited Wellington harbour in 2018 resulted in cancellation of a fireworks that scientists worried would disturb the whale.
But the sighting of more whales around New Zealand’s coast could be a significant sign they are re-discovering mainland New Zealand.

“It’s vital that we do all we can to make space for them in our coastal waters so that as they begin to return, they will pass that knowledge to the next generation,” Dr Carroll says.

In 2018 the Scientific Committee on the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory species of Wild Animals (CMS) brought together the authors of the paper to review relevant evidence and produce recommendations. New Zealand is a signatory to CMS.

That has now resulted in formal acknowledgement of strategically managing social knowledge and targeted protection of animals that are key repositories of knowledge such as elephant matriarchs.

The study Animal culture matters for conservation is published in Science

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