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Cultures in Animal Groups

by Ron Kurtus (revised 27 February 2006)

A culture is a set of behavior traits or social rules that a specific group of a species follows. Humans have many cultures, even within specific nationalities or age groups. It was commonly thought that all animals within a species or subspecies behave according to the same rules. This is often done through adults teaching their young the way to behave.

However, recent studies have shown that there are cultures within specific animal groups. Cultures in groups of orangutans, chimpanzees and other animals have been witnessed.

Questions you may have include:

This lesson will answer those questions.



Animals teach young

Many animals teach their young to hunt and avoid danger. Lions and wild dogs will take their young with them to learn how to hunt down prey.

Monkeys have special calls to warn the troop of danger. One call is for danger on the ground and another is for danger from the sky, like if someone sees an eagle flying nearby. Young monkey will often make the incorrect call, but they soon learn, through observation, which calls are the ones to use in time of danger.

Orangutan cultures

Some examples of unique orangutan behaviors passed on to the next generation are using leaves as napkins and saying goodnight with a sputtering noise. Such traits specific to a group within a species is considered a culture, just as some humans use forks, while others use chopsticks for eating.

Bands of orangutans in Borneo and Sumatra make a kiss-squeak noise with their lips. Both groups learned to use leaves to amplify the noise, but the Borneo group also learned to change the sound by cupping the hands over the mouth. That technique or behavior is unique among the Borneo clan and part of their "culture".

The Sumatra orangutans learned to get water from a hole by dipping in a branch and then licking the leaves. This behavior is not seen in the Borneo animals. One the other hand the orangutans in one Borneo band routinely wipe their faces with leaves, using them as napkins.

Other animal cultures

It is possible that other animals also have distinct "cultures", where discoveries or learned behaviors are only passed on within the group.

Chimps learn to use tools

Chimpanzees have been known to use certain tools to get food. An example often given is using a stick to gather termites or ants from a mound. Since that behavior has been seen only a few times, it is not certain whether this is a behavior specific to an individual group of chimps.

I would guess that many animals that have the capability to learn or discover a new method to do something and that live in a pack, troop or group, would pass on those methods to offspring or others within their group. This is certainly an area for further study.

Such a study of chimpanzees was performed over a period of seven years by the Living Links Center at Emory University. They identified 39 behaviors that were learned from others.

Monkeys in lab change

A type of learned behavior has been demonstrated with monkeys in the laboratory. Rhesus monkeys were raised with stump tailed monkeys. While rhesus monkeys often fight, the stump tailed monkeys are more cooperative and tolerant of each other. The rhesus monkeys learned to be more peaceful in their relationship with other monkeys as a result of being brought up in this different culture.

Gorillas in captivity

At the Atlanta, Georgia zoo, electrified wires protect trees in the gorilla enclosures from being damaged by the animals. Only some gorilla groups learned to use sticks to push aside the electrified wires, so they could snack on the bark without getting shocked. This learned cultural behavior wasn't seen in other groups in the zoo.

Summary

Many of animals teach their young survival skills. Orangutans teach specific traits or preferences to their offspring, resulting in group cultures. It is possible that other animals groups also exhibit cultures. Groups of chimpanzees learned to use tools, and rhesus monkeys in a laboratory formed a more peaceful culture. Some gorillas developed cultural traits to avoid electrical shocks in zoo captivity.


Animals are smarter than we think


Resources and references

Ron Kurtus' Credentials

Websites

Prestige Affects Cultural Learning in Chimpanzees - plosone.org

Behavior Resources

Books

The Ape and the Sushi Master: Cultural Reflections of a Primatologist by Frans de Waal, Basic Books (2001) $18.00 - The effect of human culture on the study of chimp culture

Top-rated books on Animal Cultures

Top-rated books on Orangutans


Questions and comments

Do you have any questions, comments, or opinions on this subject? If so, send an email with your feedback. I will try to get back to you as soon as possible.


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