Do Animals Have Culture?

A pod of whales communicating with each other, an example of animal culture in the wild.

Culture is what defines a society: it’s a collection of our shared beliefs and behaviors.

But diverse cultures aren’t only found within human societies – it’s becoming harder to ignore the role they play in animal populations as well.

From chimp societies to animals as unrelatable as fruit flies, animal culture is a certainty.

And understanding animal culture is crucial if humanity ever truly wants to look after our non-human friends and the ecosystems we share with them.

So, what can we actually learn from animal societies?

What is animal culture?

Just like humans, animals learn from each other when they communicate. Over time, generations of animals learning and living together contributes to that particular group’s customs, ideas, and social behavior – the very definition of culture.

lion tailed macaques

Hardly news to anyone who likes learning about primates; but the rest of us may be left wondering: is culture unique to humans? To answer this, let’s go over some examples of wild animals with complex and well-studied cultures.

Wild animal culture

Jane Goodall – arguably the single most important figure in primatology – is known for bringing the vocal greeting of chimpanzees to her talks (also famous for spawning some of the most famous sustainability quotes).

Chimpanzees grooming each other.
Image by VUT via Flickr

And chimps talk a lot, too. These are highly intelligent animals that rely on communal tool use for complex tasks, wear decorative jewelry, and generally just set the standard for collective knowledge within wild animal populations.

Probably just as well-known are the many local dialects and languages of dolphins and other whale and cetacean species. For example, it’s believed that dolphins identify themselves with a personal name – and killer whales even have regional food preferences.

orca whale swimming

Sperm whales can communicate with one another across unfathomable distances underwater, using a vocal language that remains too complex for humans to decode.

Used for a variety of different purposes, sperm whales in particular often use their calls to signal their cultural identity when different clan territories overlap. Just a few examples, but these are all animals that are also pretty similar to ourselves: they’re all mammals, highly intelligent, and mostly ones we don’t eat.

Farm animal culture

Animal culture isn’t limited to wild species – it’s also present within communities of animals we raise as food.

Most people don’t keep pigs as pets. But those who do will confirm that these animals are not only intelligent, they also experience complex emotional ranges. Similar to pets like house cats, pigs are curious and show an eagerness to learn about new objects and experiences.

piglets playing

Similar to pigs, cows are equally capable of emotional intelligence. In cow society, behaviors like communal grooming form the backbone of complex social networks; and these kinds of social bonds allow farm animals like cows to offer each other emotional support.

curious cows

Even chickens – widely regarded as some of the least intelligent animals – have complex societies, with members expressing empathy and cognitive biases. With more than 24 different vocalizations, chickens are capable of communicating a wide range of things to their flock.

curious backyard chickens

Male chickens even have a specific vocalization reserved for when they find a particularly delicious morsel of food – in other words, chickens have a way of saying “Mmm.”

The list of animals whose complexity is routinely overlooked goes on and on; things like intelligence, sociality, and communication are all highly intertwined concepts within culture. The more we discover about the capabilities of different animal species, the more we can find out about their rich cultures.

Fish and other “lesser animal” culture

Let’s go over a few less obvious examples.

Fish aren’t very relatable for humans – cold, expressionless, devoid of most human characteristics. But even migratory fish need to learn specific migratory and breeding routes from their peers. In fact, most species of animals have some sort of cultural, tradition-based behavior that helps them spread their genes.

two hammerhead sharks

Migratory cranes tend to develop traditional flight paths based on those taught to them by members of their flock; even fruit flies can develop mating strategies based on watching the courting rituals of other flies.

migrating sandhill cranes

It’s quite clear that animals need to learn from one another in order to adopt survival skills, behaviors, and traditions that increase their overall chances of reproduction.

And this means that, in many cases, the damage caused by human activity on animals’ existence extends beyond practical, physical limitations – and well into the future success of their species.

Why does animal culture matter?

Most of us would be very vulnerable if we found ourselves in a survival situation – say, the middle of the Amazon rainforest. If you’re reading this, you’re most likely from a human culture that no longer values the ability to make a fire from sticks or identify the safest and juiciest edible insects in your backyard.

These are elements of human culture that have been lost as society changes, and that’s ok. Plenty of examples in human history of forceful changes to local customs exist as well, often with more negative consequences.

Over time, humanity has certainly lost quite a lot of traditional ecological knowledge due to shifts in how our global society is structured – and the same thing applies to animals.

Here’s a documentary I recently watched that covers a variety of animal culture examples, many of which are intertwined with their responses to human encroachment on their homes:

When non-human animal cultures are disrupted, valuable skills are lost. And this impacts the individual, the community, and the species as a whole. When communities and species change suddenly, ecosystems struggle to keep up.

Chimpanzees are a prime example of this. Deforestation and poaching are major disruptors of chimp populations – these industries fragment chimp habitat into smaller and smaller regions. When chimps are no longer able to mingle and share information and tools, their behavioral diversity trends downwards.

A captive chimpanzee using a handmade tool in a zoo enclosure.

Over time, the loss of diverse learned or shared behaviors and cultures means these wild animals lose their cultural identity, unable to pass on the strategies that brought them success in the first place.

When it comes to whales and dolphins, the loss of cultural identity can change things as simple as which type of fish they prefer to eat – a preference that allows a large number of one species to occupy the same space and avoid competition.

In migratory fish and birds, there’s a clear loss of function in cases where individuals and groups can’t find their way to ancestral breeding grounds.

How do humans impact animal culture?

Culture plays a significant role in the reproductive success of animals; in a changing climate, their adaptability is under more stress with each passing year.

The fishing industry prevents the recovery of aquatic animal species. The fishing industry is possibly the single most destructive consumer force on the planet. Unregulated, globalized overfishing is currently keeping many species in a state of constant fluctuation – dancing between endangered and “plentiful enough” to harvest.

freshly caught sailfish

Collisions with boats and accidental net catching kills hundreds of thousands of whales and dolphins each year, and constant ocean noise from the shipping industry disrupts the long-range navigation and communication abilities of whales. Big issues when you consider that these animal populations are only just starting to recover from widespread industrial whaling operations in the 20th century.

Habitat fragmentation prevents animals from socializing. On land, habitats are becoming harder and harder to find for many animals. Our world’s once expansive forest cover has been decimated by monoculture agriculture, a method of growing crops that’s responsible for a general loss in biodiversity worldwide.

A lone pheasant lost within a large field of crops.

When an animal can longer venture out and find others to mate and socialize with, they lose the ability to pass on important cultural behaviors. This sort of fragmentation is one of the most pressing issues within primate conservation, with land being cleared to produce various rainforest foods and products.

Reintroduction programs don’t always help animals. When the conservation of a species is prioritized, experts tend to highlight the importance of returning an animal to a suitable habitat – but it doesn’t always work out.

two toed sloth feeding

Reintroductions are pointless if the cause of a species extinction is still present in the environment, and in many cases these ecosystems simply no longer exist and may never recover at all. For example, widespread coral bleaching events may render most reefs unlivable soon; a disaster that would affect how or where certain species could be reintroduced.

Can animal culture be protected?

It’s clear that habitats need to be safe and stable for animals. But much less focus is put on providing animals with the skills they need to thrive in that habitat – and this is mainly due to the difficulty of replicating culture in animals held in captivity.

Animal culture can be hard to truly define, let alone measure to any useful degree. What ecologists would call a minimum viable population refers to the smallest number of individuals needed to reproduce and survive in the wild, a simple way to measure biological success.

wild herd of elephants

For populations to thrive in their habitats, animals rely on more than genes and physical resources – they rely on skills, behaviors, traditions, and habits learned from collective animal culture.

These traits play a far more significant role in the reproductive success of animals with culture than is immediately obvious, and factoring them in changes how we make decisions.

All of these lessons have led to a shift in how conservationists are approaching the protection of many wild animal species. Moving forward, an ever-increasing database of animal behaviors is seeing use in conservation strategies.

Even the zoo industry, often criticized for lackluster animal welfare regulations, is starting to come around to the idea of maximizing the wellbeing of animals in order to successfully reintroduce endangered species.

With more focus on animal culture, perhaps our global shipping and flight schedules could one day be designed with the rush hour of whales and birds in mind.

Are animals actually emotionally intelligent?

As Captain Quint from the original Jaws famously said:

“The thing about a shark, it’s got lifeless eyes, black eyes, like a doll’s eyes. When it comes at you it doesn’t seem to be livin’… until he bites you, and those black eyes roll over white.”

Fish not only provide us with blockbuster hits – they’re also a brilliant example of our inability to recognize non-human sentience. For as long as humanity has existed, we’ve assumed them to be mindless automatons with a three second memory and no ability to suffer or feel pain.

We’ve sold them in plastic bags at fairgrounds and kept them in featureless glass bowls until their oxygen ran out; all the while wondering why they always end up floating upside-down.

We haul them out of the water by their faces impaled on hooks, and watch with enjoyment as they struggle to free themselves, slowly suffocating in a bucket on the side of a tranquil river setting.

hooked trout

But even naturalists as far back as Darwin understood that fish are capable of feeling. In his book The Descent of Man, the legendary biologist wrote:

“The lower animals, like man, manifestly feel pleasure and pain, happiness and misery. Happiness is never better exhibited than by young animals, such as puppies, kittens, lambs, etc., when playing together, like our own children. Even insects play together…”

Yet, there’s nearly always been a powerful movement of mental protest and denial against the idea that animals are anything more than basic curiosities. Fish notoriously stoic in their expressions – and we also have a lot of incentives to deny their suffering:

  • Fish taste good
  • Fishing is profitable
  • Fishing is a traditionally pleasant way to spend the day

Accepting that there’s immense suffering involved forces us to re-evaluate far too many complicated situations. It’s much easier to devalue their experience as animals, because it gives us a loophole to ignore any ethical dilemmas we face.

mogadishu fish market

Armed with all of these psychological coping mechanisms, it’s not likely that the concept of fish culture will hit the mainstream any time soon.

And why should it? Fish are not humans – but it would be foolish to assume that only humans are capable of developing culture or skills founded on emotional intelligence. Here are a few noteworthy examples in the animal world:

These kinds of complex experiences were previously thought to be exclusive to human-like animals – such as primates, dogs, and maybe a particularly juiced-up rat.

blind guide dog

It’s no longer a controversial opinion to hold that this extends to animals of all shapes and sizes across the kingdom, regardless of their distance from us on the evolutionary tree.

With this in mind, it doesn’t seem like such a leap to consider that these thinking, feeling, and experiencing animals can and do develop cultures of their own.

Final thoughts

The study of animals that share cultural concepts has yet to be fully realized – but it’s a field of research that offers incredible insights into the future of conservation.

Recognizing the importance of cultures within non-human animal species may play a key role in protecting these incredible animals.

Have you seen any striking examples of animal culture?

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