Animal Conservation

In prioritizing conservation, animal culture should be a factor, study finds

  • Research has shown that culture exists in a myriad of animal species, enabling the sharing of information between generations, leading to instances of tool use, and potentially affecting the adaptability of animals to changes in their environment.
  • In a new paper, scientists offer a step-by-step process for considering and protecting animal culture in conservation efforts.
  • They advocate an approach to conservation that integrates culture with conventional considerations such as genetic diversity, rather than using it as a ‘stand-alone’ tool.

The first reports of nutcracker behavior in chimpanzees by Western scientists date from the 1840s. Since then, evidence of animals modifying something in their environment and then using it to their advantage has appeared in many species, extending far beyond our closest relatives in the order of primates to dolphins, crows and even octopuses. The discovery of these behaviors shattered a perceived boundary once thought to separate us humans from the rest of the animal kingdom, and it led to the broader assertion that animals beyond Homo sapiens have the capacity for cultivation.

Recognizing this fact – which takes the form of nutcrackers in chimpanzees, songs in humpback whales, and decades of knowledge stored in the brains of elephant matriarchs – uncovers a host of behaviors that may be important to scientists, wildlife managers and policy makers. protect through conservation efforts.

Therein lies the challenge, according to a recent article in the journal Retention letters.

The ability of chimpanzees to crack nuts, a behavior over 4,000 years old, occurs in a few selected groups of Pan troglodytes in the forests of West Africa. Does this behavior, perhaps transmitted and refined over millennia, make these groups priority targets for conservation measures, such as including their range in a protected area? How does the value of this trait square with the need to protect the gene diversity within the species needed to ensure its continued survival?

A young chimpanzee tries to crack nuts with a piece of wood. Image by The Green Parent via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

In 2017, such questions led the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals, a United Nations environmental treaty, to call for greater inclusion of animal culture in conservation measures. The proposed five-step process begins with building consensus on why culture should be preserved and ends with developing specific strategies linked to “concrete actions”.

“Animal cultures have become a hot topic in wildlife conservation circles, and multiple approaches have been proposed on how best to address this problem,” Erin Wessling, postdoctoral fellow in human evolutionary biology at the University of Harvard and co-author of the study, said in an email. “We saw a need for clearer definitions in implementing culture in conservation, and wanted to provide some food for thought that can help guide those conversations and next steps.”

The team’s research, published Jan. 6, lays out a process with “achievable steps” that the authors say will allow animal culture considerations to inform conservation action.

Traditionally, conservation decisions have been guided by parameters such as the genetic diversity of a given population within a species, or the reproductive potential of a certain segment of a population. But what happens when a group of genetically similar chimpanzee populations nevertheless exhibit an array of cultural traits that might be worth saving?

Another frequently cited example of the value of animal culture is the importance of older female elephants to their family groups. The number of descendants that these matriarchs can contribute to the total number of elephants decreases as they grow older, which could call into question why they should be protected. However, research has also shown that the experience learned from these matriarchs acquired over their lifetime is often an invaluable library of information that she shares with and passes on to subsequent generations, such as distinguishing friendly elephants from suspicious strangers from of their calls.

There are decades of knowledge stored in the brains of elephant matriarchs, which they pass on to younger generations. Image by Rohit Varma via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Taking these considerations into account could, for example, favor shifting the boundaries of a proposed protected area so that it encompasses the group that exhibits a specific behavior. Or managers can use this cultural capital to justify special protections for older members of an elephant family. Hjalmar Kühl, senior researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, who was not involved in this research, stressed the importance of speaking with “one voice” about how culture should be included in all conservation concerns. Planning.

“If everyone says something different, decision makers will be confused,” Kühl said.

In outlining a framework for discussion, “This study makes a concrete proposal,” he said in an interview. Although he would have liked to see the inclusion of specific case studies in the study, he said: “I think it is a valuable contribution to the current discussion.”

The study also highlights possible harms that could arise from conservation decisions based on animal culture considerations. On the one hand, one might be tempted to treat culture as the only issue taken into account.

“[W]When it comes to prioritizing wild populations for conservation efforts, culture should not be used as a stand-alone conservation tool, but carefully integrated into existing conservation strategies,” Kathelijne Koops, primatologist and professor at the Swiss University of Zurich and co-author of the research, said in an email.

Lead author Susana Carvalho said this approach could be “ineffective and distract from ongoing conservation efforts”.

Right whales share information about migratory routes with each other. Image by FWC Fish and Wildlife Research Institute via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

In the case of West African chimpanzees, too much emphasis on the ability to crack nuts might override more conventional but still important considerations about the genetic diversity of populations.

“[T]The earlier we identify the downsides, the more likely we will be able to mitigate those risks and be successful in using culture as an effective conservation tool,” said Carvalho, professor of paleoanthropology at the University of Oxford.

The way to achieve this, according to the authors, is to ensure that culture is not just considered in the abstract, but that it leads to concrete solutions, as they propose in their step-by-step process.

That said, researchers also object to requiring an unrealistic level of evidence to demonstrate that a given aspect of culture definitely and positively benefits the survival of a species or population. This could halt much-needed action in the face of the global biodiversity crisis, they write. The team notes that scientists still don’t know how being able to crack a nut with a stone or wooden tool affects chimpanzees’ ability to reproduce, even though the behavior is “one of the use behaviors of the most studied tools of one of the most intensively studied animals.

Kühl agreed with the need to avoid “utilitarian thinking” when discussing how, or even if, elements of animal culture improve animal fitness.

“For most populations…maybe even most species, we have no idea,” he said. “We cannot take this for granted.”

What is clear from ongoing research is that culture has appeared in an ever-increasing number of species, leading to the current debate about how to include it in conservation solutions.

“As little as a century ago, culture was thought to be unique to humans, but research in recent years has shown that if we describe culture as all that we learn from previous generations, culture exists in many species of fish, birds and mammals,” Andrew Whiten, emeritus professor of evolutionary and developmental psychology at the University of St. Andrews in the UK, said in an email.

“This is an important contribution to a growing understanding that culture permeates the lives of certain animals,” Whiten, who was not involved in the study, said of the research.

An octopus using a nutshell and shell to hide. Image by Nick Hobgood via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0).

As environments change shape around the animal species that live there due to climate change and human-induced landscape changes, the skills, behaviors and information shared through a species’ culture could be what tips the scales towards its survival, and perhaps in ways that are not yet understood. All the more reason to make sure these cultures don’t disappear, Koops said.

“When cultural behaviors are lost, they disappear from that population’s bag of tricks and reduce its behavioral diversity and flexibility,” she said. “This cultural heritage, whether tangible or intangible, must be both recognized and preserved.”

Banner image: An adult chimpanzee communicates with a younger member of the group. Image by The Green Parent via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

John Cannon is a feature writer with Mongabay. Find him on Twitter: @johnccannon


Carvalho, S., Wessling, EG, Abwe, EE, Almeida‐Warren, K., Arandjelovic, M., Boesch, C., … Koops, K. (2022). The use of non-human culture in conservation requires careful and concerted action. Retention letters. doi:10.1111/conl.12860

Koops, K., Soumah, AG, Van Leeuwen, KL, Camara, HD and Matsuzawa, T. (2022). Field experiments find no evidence that chimpanzee nut cracking can be independently innovated. Nature Human behavior. doi:10.1038/s41562-021-01272-9

McComb, K., Moss, C., Durant, SM, Baker, L. & Sayialel, S. (2001). Matriarchs as repositories of social knowledge in African elephants. Science, 292(5516), 491-494. doi:10.1126/science.1057895

Mercader, J., Barton, H., Gillespie, J., Harris, J., Kuhn, S., Tyler, R. & Boesch, C. (2007). 4,300-year-old chimpanzee sites and the origins of percussion stone technology. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 104(9), 3043-3048. doi:10.1073/pnas.0607909104

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Adaptation, Animal Behavior, Animal Intelligence, Animals, Biodiversity, Charismatic Animals, Conservation, Conservation Solutions, Culture, Ecology, Threatened Species, Environment, Protected Areas, Research, Conservation Trends, Wildlife, Wildlife Conservation

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