Do animals have culture?  – the post

Two bumblebees fly over a poppy in a field in Frankfurt, Germany (AP Photo/Michael Probst)

Several recent studies reinforce the hypothesis that the ability to learn from other individuals and transmit complex behaviors is not a uniquely human characteristic

A recent scientific article about bumblebees, a genus of insects from the same family as bees, provided some relevant information to support a hypothesis that has long been discussed in the field of ethology, the part of biology that studies animal behavior. The hypothesis is that man's typical ability to learn more from others than he can learn from himself during his lifetime—a necessary condition for the formation of what we call “culture”—is a capacity shared with other animals. Classify.

Published in March in the magazine nature By a group of researchers from Queen Mary University of London and the University of Sheffieldpurpose Describes the results of an experiment in which bumblebees were asked to solve a complex problem on a turntable inside a box. To obtain a reward (a sugar solution) that they perceived but could not directly access, bumblebees had to perform two actions in sequence: open the turntable by pressing a latch and then rotate it counterclockwise.

Bumblebees, which are amazing insects at social learning, failed to solve the problem during the experiment, even after a prolonged exposure of 24 days. Some succeeded only after training: in practice, the experimenters induced them to learn the middle step by placing an initial reward on the latch that had to be pushed to open the platform. At that point the bees were also able to overcome the second step and reach the sugar solution.

The surprising result that the researchers considered the most important was that a group of untrained bumblebees, who initially, like the others, were unable to solve the problem, were later able to understand how to behave without needing the first reward. He limited himself to learning from the behavior of a “demonstrator” bumblebee, that is, one of those who had been trained to pass the first step.

The ability of non-human animals to perform new actions by learning from the behavior of their peers has been known and studied for decades in species such as chimpanzees, macaques, crows, and humpback whales. The result described in the study published on nature However, it is the first evidence of this social ability among invertebrates, applied to solving particularly complex problems: problems that are difficult for a single individual to solve by trial and error.

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some comments For this and other similar experiments, they interpreted the results as further evidence of the possibility that culture, understood as the ability of a species to learn and spread complex behaviors across a population, is not a uniquely human reality. The bumblebee example is important because it suggests that even the behaviors of insects whose sophisticated social structure has been known for a long time, such as bees, can be at least partly learned rather than innate, which has been the prevailing hypothesis until now.

– Read also: Will we ever understand how animals think?

Although it is used in many different ways in common language, the word “culture” in behavioral science and other related disciplines has a fairly precise meaning. Refers to a group of Behavioral traditions From the population, that is, behaviors that are transmitted through social learning and that persist in a group or society over time. Researchers have observed many behaviors throughout the animal kingdom that meet this definition of cumulative culture, which is characterized by sequential innovations that build on previous innovations.

Almost every part of human life depends on knowledge and technologies of this kind, which are too complex for an individual to manage independently and without cultural traditions. Otherwise it would not be possible to travel in space, for example, or even flush a toilet.

An article published in the magazine in March The nature of human behavior Showing the results of an experiment similar to that conducted on bumblebees, but conducted With chimpanzees It was carried out by a group of researchers from Utrecht University, the Netherlands, and the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. At Chimfunshi Wildlife Orphanage, a wildlife refuge in Zambia, researchers left a box of peanuts that served as a kind of vending machine available to a community of 66 chimpanzees, divided into two groups.

The chimpanzees could see and smell the peanut, but to access it they had to trigger the dispenser by picking up one of the wooden pellets the researchers left nearby. The box had a spring-loaded drawer that you had to open and keep open, because there was a cavity inside that you could insert a ball into to receive a handful of peanuts. After three months in which no chimpanzees were able to operate the dispenser, the researchers selected an older female from each of the two groups for training.

“You can't pick an animal at random.” He said Edwin van Leeuwen, one of the authors of the study, explained that for successful training it is important to choose bold and average individuals within the group. Once the female had completed training, the location of the dispenser was changed and made available again to both groups. After spending two months in the presence of trained individuals, 14 chimpanzees were able to operate the dispenser by repeatedly observing the behavior of another individual who had learned how to operate the dispenser.

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Both chimpanzee and bee studies It is considered Important experimental evidence for social learning in animals, for which there has long been extensive anecdotal evidence. The ability to learn by observing and imitating the behavior of other individuals is actually one of the factors that contribute to determining behavioral differences between different groups.

From chimpanzees, for example, the practice of using sticks or blades of grass to capture termites is well known, having been observed and studied since the early 1960s by the English ethologist Jane Goodall. But in the late 1990s, zoologist and psychologist Andrew Whiten You discover In collaboration with her research group at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, and Goodall herself, chimpanzees use termite capture techniques differently depending on which group they belong to. People in some parts of Africa eat insects directly from a stick, while others use their free hands to pick them up before eating.

– Read also: Jane Goodall: amateur, scholar, activist, icon

In recent years, the amount of evidence for different social behaviours, eating habits and even songs and calls between groups of the same species has also increased. The differences are due to environmental factors, but are also made possible by the social tendency to welcome and disseminate elements of innovation introduced by individuals within groups. Evidence of similar cultural development has been observed among OrcasI Sperm whales And others CetaceansBut also in between various types to the birds.

Cultural differences within the same species can also be reflected in more stable and distinct aspects of social life, as some researchers from the Department of Biology at the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium, and the Entomology Laboratory of the Embrapa Institute in Brazil have shown: in purpose Published in March in the magazine Current biology. In a large apiary in Jaguariña, Brazil, the research team observed 416 colonies of ostriches Scaptotrigona debilisIt is a type of stingless bee that is found in South America for two long periods in 2022 and 2023.

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About 95% of the colonies had combs built in overlapping horizontal layers, Like wedding cakes On multiple levels, the type of structure he prefers Scaptotrigona debilis. Instead, the remaining colonies had a spiral structure: in both cases the architectural pattern was preserved for many generations of bees. There were also no differences in construction speed, so there is no efficiency advantage in following one approach over the other.

To rule out that the difference in style was derived from genetic factors, the research group transplanted some individuals from colonies whose combs were built in multiple layers into colonies with spiral combs, and vice versa. Before doing so, he emptied the host buildings so as not to leave the “native” adults in the colony, who could have influenced the behavior of the imported workers. The imported bees quickly adopted the local pattern, which the colony's larvae also inherited as they matured into adults.

According to biologist Tom Wenceliers, head of the University of Leuven laboratory who conducted the research, bees may be changing their approach to deal with the accumulation of microscopic construction errors made by their ancestors. This process is defined by which some individuals of social insects indirectly influence the behavior of others through the traces they leave in their environment Stigma. To confirm Winsler's hypothesis, the group then introduced subtle variations in the structure of honeycombs with overlapping horizontal layers, and discovered that in this case the bees actually switched to a spiral construction.

The results of the study on bees in Jaguariuna suggest that the transmission of different honeycomb building traditions across generations can occur even without individuals having to be taught directly by their peers. It therefore allows us to think about culture in broader terms, without understanding it strictly as a set of behaviors passed from individual to individual until it becomes a distinctive feature of a group.

And even the transmission of more complex animal behaviors – such as the building of dams by beavers or gods family Tree climbing by chimpanzees – can occur in the same indirect way, He said Whitening atEconomist. It is possible that stigmatization processes may also be a basis for the transmission of some human traditions.

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