To save animals, we must work with their culture

New Scientist
15 December 2014

For the first time, a global treaty has recognised non-human culture. Now we must rethink how we preserve key species

SOMETHING momentous happened in conservation circles last month in Ecuador. At the UN Convention on Migratory Species conference, a resolution was passed recognising that some social mammals have culture.

Sure, the idea of non-human culture has been around for years. But this is the first time that it has been formally recognised by an international treaty. And beyond acknowledging that it isn’t just humans that have socially learned traditions, this treaty opens up a new frontier for efforts to conserve social species.

What is non-human culture? A popular definition is information or behaviour – shared by a population or subpopulation – acquired from others of the same species via social learning. What this means for conservation, which often treats a species as homogeneous, is that culture can create boundaries between social groups, affecting behaviour, gene flow and resource use.

In 1975 sociobiologist E. O. Wilson noted the influence of social structure on fitness, gene flow and spatial patterns in some species. Deeper understanding only started to emerge in the past decade, and wildlife policy has been slow to catch up.

The new resolution recognises both positive and negative consequences of non-human culture. Individuals passing on knowledge may increase population viability by allowing the rapid spread of innovations amid environmental challenges, which could mean more-resilient social groups. On the other hand, the effects of human-induced threats may be amplified by the presence of non-human culture.

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