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The Cultural Evolution Society's Online Learning Series

Animal Cultures: Core Discoveries and New Horizons

Lecture 13: Implications for conservation and animal welfare

Professor Hal Whitehead, Dalhousie University, Canada

Virtually all animals on Earth are increasingly affected by humans, and, in particular, by cumulative human cultures. As we try to improve the prospects for wildlife (conservation) and the lives of captive animals (welfare), what we have learned about animal cultures has an important role. We should try to protect the cultural diversity of animals, both for its own sake and because cultural diversity generally makes populations more resilient in the face of habitat change.

Animal cultures can exacerbate conservation issues, particularly when there is social learning of methods of exploiting humans and our products and this exploitation causes conflict with humans. Reintroduction and translocation are important conservation interventions, but they often fail due to inappropriate behavior by the animals moved into the new habitat. Social learning from experienced individuals can help.

On the large scale, culture should be an important consideration when delineating population units for conservation and management; while, on the smaller scale, the welfare of captive animals will generally be improved if they can maintain appropriate cultures.

Hal Whitehead

Lecture slides (pdf)

Core (testable) readings

Greggor, A.L., Thornton, A. & Clayton, N.S. (2017). Harnessing learning biases is essential for applying social learning in conservation. Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, 71, 16.

This paper considers how social learning and, in particular, biases in the way animals learn from one another affect their conservation status and attempts to improve that status.

Whitehead, H. (2010). Conserving and managing animals that learn socially and share cultures. Learning and Behavior, 38, 329-336.

A review of how animal cultures interact with the theory and practice of conservation biology.

Further reading

Brakes, P., Dall, S.R.X., Aplin, L.M., Bearhop, S., Carroll, E.L., Ciucci, P. et al. (2019). Animal cultures matter for conservation. Science, 363, 1032-1034.

After a brief, but current, review of the significance of animal cultures in conservation biology, this paper highlights the potentially important role of international legal instruments, such as the Convention on Migratory Species, in this area.

Ryan, S.J. (2006). The role of culture in conservation planning for small or endangered populations. Conservation Biology, 20, 1321-1324.

This paper addresses the role of animal culture in delineating population segments for conservation purposes, introducing the concept of Culturally Significant Units.

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