The Concept of New Definition of Animal Culture

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The question of whether or not animals have and display culture has been a longstanding discussion which, through many years, has produced many theories. One of these theories is that only animals with larger cranial capacities, such as non-human primates, are capable of learning and displaying cultural tendencies . 

However, culture has since been defined as “systems of linguistically encoded conceptual phenomena that are learned through teaching and imitation, socially transmitted within populations, and characteristic of groups of people” by Laland and Hoppit and later, animal culture was defined as “behavior that is socially learnt and acquired, shared by members of a group or community and persistent overtime” by Laland and Janik. 

This new definition of animal culture, with the key concept of social learning, provided the foundation for many more recent studies aiming to find evidence of culture in other animals, such as birds and fish. These ongoing studies have produced vast amounts of evidence suggesting that animal culture, as defined by Laland and Janik, is present in various non-primate species. 

This essay will evaluate the evidence of culture in different bird species, according to the definition of animal culture as defined by Laland and Janik, across three aspects, birdsong, foraging, and courtship, as well as briefly discussing how birds compare to primates in this regard.

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For many years, birdsong was considered to be the only cultural trait in bird species, thus resulting in extensive research and studies being done in that aspect alone. For example, Fehér et al. found that even after raising Zebra Finches in complete acoustic isolation in captivity, their birdsong was still learnt and passed on through generations until it had returned to the complex, wildtype song observed naturally (after which it remained fairly constant), indicating not only social learning of birdsong but also cultural inheritance. 

Another study done by Bartlett and Slater found that when merging groups of Budgerigars the minority would change their contact calls to match that of the rest of the group, again indicating clear social learning. A case where the socially learning of birdsong can be observed in the wild, is with yellowhammer passerines. It has been observed that the yellowhammers which were introduced to New Zealand have maintained their original dialect, whereas the original group of yellowhammers in Britain have since changed their birdsong and the old dialect is no longer present there. This is another clear indication of social learning of a behaviour, shared by individuals of a group, while remaining persistent over time, observed in captivity (ie. laboratory experiments) as well as in the wild, thus suggesting that birdsong is in fact a cultural trait.

However, recently more and more studies have been done looking for evidence of culture in birds across aspects other than birdsong. It has since been found that bird species are capable of socially learning foraging techniques to such an extent that it is passed on through many generations until it is considered a normal, stable, characteristic trait of the species. 

Perhaps the best known and most frequently cited case of social learning of foraging techniques is that of the great tit species who learnt to pierce through the foil caps of milk bottles left on doorsteps, all over the UK, in order to drink the cream. Aplin, Sheldon and Morand-Ferron did a study to test whether this social learning of foraging techniques in great tits could be observed under experimental conditions and replicated. They found convincing evidence of complex observational, social learning among great tits with regards to foraging techniques, which according to Laland and Janiks definition, is therefore a cultural trait. 

Logan et al. did a similar study with New Caledonian crows which concluded that the crows are able to socially learn context specific mechanisms of tool use for foraging. The drastic increase in whales with gull lesions off the coast of Argentina was another indicating factor of socially learning among kelp gulls. 

The fact that this foraging technique was not observed in other kelp gull populations is as strong indication of social learning of the foraging technique specific to that local culture. These three separate indications of social learning of foraging techniques among different species provides strong evidence of culture in bird species, other than birdsong, as described by the definition of animal culture.  

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