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Whale culture should play a part in their conservation says new international study

An international group of researchers working on a wide range of species, including whales, argues that cultural knowledge of these creatures needs to be taken into consideration when planning international conservation efforts and laws.

A paper published in leading journal Science (Tuesday 26 February) makes a compelling case that growing scientific evidence on social learning, which can lead to unique cultures in many species, is important for both conservation practice and conservation policy.

Insights can provide valuable information on ‘what’ groups to conserve, and on ‘how’ best to conserve them. For example, understanding how grandmother orcas pass on valuable information to their offspring, or why some groups of chimpanzees have a culture of cracking nutritious nuts with stone tools while others do not, can be key to evaluating conservation challenges for such species.

In many species, inexperienced young learn key survival skills by observing knowledgeable elders in their social group. This includes learning about how to communicate, how to forage efficiently, and where to migrate to when conditions become less hospitable.

Unlike genetic transmission, this social knowledge can be passed on within generations, so knowledge about new food sources can be shared, potentially providing resilience in changing environments.

However, the authors report that social-learning processes can also result in the emergence of cultural sub-groups with distinctive behavioural profiles, potentially erecting social barriers, as observed for example in the distinctive vocal clans of sperm whales in the Eastern tropical Pacific. Such cultural segregation can have important conservation implications, especially when different groups have different foraging strategies and vary in their ability to cope with environmental change.

For some species, protecting individual whales that act as ‘repositories’ of social knowledge, may be just as important as conserving their critical habitat.

“Beyond genes, knowledge is also an important currency for wildlife. As well as conserving genetic diversity, we must work towards maintaining cultural diversity within animal populations, as a reservoir for resilience and adaptation. This is an important reframing of our understanding of the natural world, which will necessitate changes in international wildlife law,” said the lead author of the paper, Philippa Brakes, from the University of Exeter, UK.

The Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS) – widely known as the ‘Bonn Convention’ – which operates under the umbrella of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), has been a pioneer in this field, spearheading efforts to use scientific knowledge on animal cultures, to improve the conservation of migratory species.

The Science paper resulted from a seminal workshop in Parma, Italy, organised by the CMS, where experts pooled decades of expertise to devise concrete recommendations on how to improve conservation strategies. They highlighted that it is critical to catalogue the wide diversity of cultural behaviours within the animal kingdom, and to develop methods for identifying individuals who are the keepers of important social knowledge within their communities and require special protection.

Senior author of the paper, Professor Christian Rutz, from the University of St Andrews, UK, announced the publication of the group’s recommendations on Tuesday 26 February, at a workshop on animal cultures in Konstanz, Germany, co-organised by the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology Radolfzell and the National Geographic Society.

This novel approach opens up opportunities for innovative ways of protecting and communicating about the natural world: understanding that other species have rich social lives and that they share important information with each other, provides an invaluable new perspective. With increasing habitat degradation around the globe, such insights may be vital for efficient animal conservation.

Read more about this and why we should protect whales and dolphins

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