The way zoologists see it
Some people associate “culture” with washing your hands before you sit down to have your meal. Others see culture more in connection with literature, song and dance. And the zoologist? The zoologist defines culture as a kind of behaviour that is inherited from one generation of a species to another not genetically, but by learned transmission. In this sense the infamous blue tit individual from Swaythling near Stoneham, Southampton which started the habit of tearing open the aluminium caps covering milk bottles, was the founder of a “culture” that spread in a few years from its place of origin through the entire population of blue tits in England.
That the habit of stealing milk in this way was not completely without risk is obvious on account of some of the birds being found drowned head first in a bottle. However, this did not stop them to even lie in wait for the milkman to deliver the milk and then quickly attack the bottle before another bird might arrive.
In many species of song birds their characteristic songs are not inherited, but learned and once again the term “culture” would certainly seem justifiable, especially as has been reported in Great Tits and other famous singers that noises in the environment are copied or a part of a song from a bird in the neighbourhood is plagiarised. When in 1963 a Japanese macaque monkey female of Koshima Island discovered that it was easier to throw a mixture of seeds and sand into water and then sieve the seeds off the surface rather than laboriously hand-picking the grain from the sane, this “trick” was copied by some of her family members and friends. Soon all the monkeys in the area knew how to quickly separate seeds from dirt and the young learned from the old: another example of animal culture. Not all monkey cultures are nice as a reported fad amongst capuchin monkeys who poke each other’s eyeballs with their long sharp fingernails demonstrates. But staying with monkeys, lemurs in Madagascar and capuchin monkeys, too, have been seen to anoint their fur with millipedes, a measure of hygiene as the millipedes’ toxic secretions would kill or at least deter parasites like fleas and lice.
Delousing as a form of body care has, of course, its parallels in many human societies. Culture in an aquatic environment has been reported from humpback whales, which according to St. Andrews biologist Luke Rendell hit upon a new method involved in herding prey together: lobtail feeding which precedes the better known bubble-feeding in which whales collectively blow a circularly curtain of bubbles to concentrate fish in the centre.
However, back to washing your hands: not all cases of washing paws or food before the meal are learnt and represent culture in the animal world. They can in fact be a genetic trait as in the raccoon, a North American rabbit-sized carnivorous mammal that has the instinctive habit of racing to the nearest body of water with its morsel of food to wash it prior to ingestion. In reality this washing is thought to have little to do with cleanliness and to merely represent a search for little worms in the sand or for freshwater shrimps which would make the food a little tastier. Well, isn’t that some culture after all?
© Dr V.B. Meyer-Rochow and http://www.bioforthebiobuff.wordpress.com, 2017.
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