Researchers at the University of Konstanz and the Max Planck Institute for Animal Behavior in Germany found that birds are able to change their culture to become more efficient. Populations with large breasts were able to switch from a single behavior to a better alternative when members of their group were slowly replaced by new birds. It was published today as an open entry in the journal Current biologyThis research reveals migration as a powerful driver of cultural change in animal populations that can help them adapt to rapidly changing environments.
In animals, “culture” is any behavior learned from others, shared by group members, and sustained across generations. Cultural traditions are known to be found in many animal groups, including primates, dolphins, whales, rodents, and birds.
Large breasts provide a classic example of animal culture. In the 1920s, birds in a town in Great Britain were observed to open the lids of milk foil to steal the cream. This behavior spread over a period of 20 years, until birds across the country were doing the same.
In 2015 scientists experimentally confirmed that the large breast was able to preserve cultural traditions. A new method of feeding – what scientists refer to as an innovation – can be taught to one bird, and this solution can be learned by other birds and gradually spread through the population.
But for large breasts and other animals with cultural traditions, it was not yet known whether groups could change. Once imitation takes root, are animals doomed to repeat the same behaviors or can they focus on more efficient behaviors?
Now, the new study has shown that more ineffective behaviors can outperform ineffective ones. It identifies a fundamental process – population turnover – as critical to the animals’ ability to change their traditions. The study, which included teaching hunted birds in the wild to solve mysteries and carefully track their behavior, provides quantitative support for the evolution of the culture.
“Empirical evidence of cultural change in animals is very rare, so we were surprised and excited about the result,” says first author Michael Cimento, PhD student in the Cognitive and Cultural Environment Research Group at the Max Planck Institute for Animal Behavior.
The research team led by senior author Lucy Ablin, who is the leader of the Max Planck Research Group, who is also a principal investigator at the Custer Center of Excellence for “Advanced Studies of Group Behavior” at the University of Konstanz, studied large breast clusters that were caught. From the forests around Konstanz. Since large wild breasts form variable social groups during the winter, when conditions are extreme, scientists believed that migration could play a role in cultural evolution.
“These flexible groups can influence how their culture changes, as new group members may see solutions to problems with clearer eyes, due to their lack of experience,” says Shimento.
The researchers used captive groups of large breasts caught in the wild to ask how resilient social groups could change their socially acquired feeding traditions. They created 18 groups of birds, each with a robotic puzzle box that awards a reward. When the bird solved the puzzle, the type of solution, solving time, and identity were recorded using RFID, infrared, and computer vision technology. Each group had a teacher who was trained to solve a relatively ineffective puzzle, which then spread across the group. After that, half of the groups remained stationary, and in the other half, members of the group were gradually replaced by new birds from the wild over a period of 4 weeks.
Although both types of groups create a more efficient solution, fluid groups were more likely to adopt it as their preferred behavior. The Aborigines, who have experience solving the puzzle, were generally the ones who devised the effective solution, but did not adopt it as their preferred behavior. On the one hand, inexperienced immigrants picked up and embraced this innovation, which amplified the social information available. Birds in the fluid groups were able to solve the puzzle square faster than the stationary groups, although having less general experience.
“Large breasts seem to function well in and between human-made habitats, compared to other species,” Shimento says. Our study demonstrates how their fluid social dynamics may be part of the secret of their success and contribute to their resilience.
- The study shows rare experimental evidence that animals are able to change their culture to become more efficient.
Using groups of large mammals hunted in forests around the Konstanz region, the study highlights the crucial role of migratory birds in enabling populations to adopt more efficient cultures.
Populations that replaced birds with gullible individuals were able to switch from an ineffective culture to a more efficient one, while populations with stable membership were unable to.
– Original publication: Population rotation facilitates cultural selection for proficiency in birds. Michael Cimento, Gustavo Alarcon Nieto and Lucy Abelin. Current biology (2021) https: /
Michael Cimento and Gustavo Alarcon-Nieto, researchers at Lucy Abelen’s lab lead the Cognitive and Cultural Environment Research Group at the Max Planck Institute for Animal Behavior. Aplin is also a Principal Investigator at the Custer Center of Excellence for “Advanced Studies of Group Behavior” at the University of Konstanz.
Funding was provided by the DFG 2117 Center of Excellence “Center for the Advanced Study of Group Behavior” within the framework of the German Excellence Strategy – EXC2117–422037984.