Birds can change their culture to become more efficient, according to new research from the Max Planck Institute for Animal Behavior.
In animals, “culture” is any behavior that is learned from others, shared by group members, and persists for generations. Cultural traditions are known to exist in many groups of animals, including primates, dolphins and whales, rodents, and birds.
Big boobs provide a classic example of animal culture. In the 1920s, birds in a city in Britain were observed opening the aluminum lids of milk bottles to steal cream. This behavior lasted for 20 years, until birds across the country were doing the same.
In 2015, scientists experimentally confirmed that big boobs were able to maintain cultural traditions. A new way of feeding, which scientists refer to as an innovation, could be taught to a single bird, and that solution would be learned by other birds and gradually spread among populations.
But for big tits and other animals with cultural traditions, it was not yet known whether groups can change. Once a tradition has taken root, are animals doomed to repeat the same behaviors or can they pivot towards more efficient ones?
Now, the new study has shown that more efficient behaviors can outperform established inefficient behavior. He points to a fundamental process, population rotation, as crucial to the animals’ ability to change their traditions. Published in the magazine Current biology Last month, the study, which included teaching wild-caught birds to solve puzzles and fine-scale tracking their behavior, provides quantitative support for the evolution of culture.
“Experimental evidence of cultural change in animals is quite rare, so we were surprised and excited by the result,” says first author Michael Chimento, a doctoral student in the Institute’s Cultural and Cognitive Ecology Research Group.
The research team led by lead author Lucy Aplin, leader of the Max Planck research group and also a senior researcher at the Custer of Excellence ‘Center for the Advanced Study of Collective Behavior’ at the University of Konstanz, studied chickadee populations captured from the forests around Konstanz. Because wild chickadees form changing social groups during winter when conditions are harsher, scientists thought immigration could play a role in cultural evolution.
“These fluid groups could influence how their culture changes, as new members of the group can see solutions to problems with clearer eyes, due to their lack of experience,” says Chimento.
The researchers used captive populations of wild-caught great tits to ask how fluid social groups might change a socially learned feeding tradition. They created 18 groups of birds, each with an automated puzzle box that gave a reward.
When a bird solved the puzzle, the type of solution, the time to solve, and the identity were recorded using RFID, infrared, and computer vision technology. Each group had a tutor who was trained in relatively ineffective puzzle solving, which was then spread throughout the group. Then half of the groups remained static, and in the other half, group members were gradually replaced with new wild birds over the course of 4 weeks.
Although both types of groups innovated a more efficient solution, fluid groups were much more likely to adopt it as their preferred behavior. The original residents, who were experienced with the puzzle, were generally the ones who innovated the efficient solution, but did not adopt it as their preferred behavior. Inexperienced immigrants, on the other hand, picked up this innovation and embraced it, amplifying the available social information. Birds in fluid groups were able to solve the puzzle box faster than in static groups, despite having less experience overall.
“Great tit seem to do well in and between man-made habitats, compared to other species,” says Chimento. “Our study shows how his fluid social dynamics could be part of his secret to success and contribute to his flexibility.
(Fountain: Konstanz University)
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