Animal Cultural Transmission And Surviving Climate Change
Climate change can have a substantial and negative impact on the ability of species to survive. One major consequence of climate change on survival is the impact it has on the availability and location of suitable habitat. For example, many animal species have specific distributional ranges for locating food and mating, and these distributional ranges are being affected by climate change. This shift in range can negatively impact a species’ ability to forage and reproduce. Unfortunately, the rate at which the climate is changing is faster than the rate at which animals naturally evolve, and therefore adapt, to such changes in their environment.
Given the inability of animals to sufficiently predict future range shifts and modify their behaviors through a natural process, conservationists are looking for alternative ways to help animal species identify potential range shifts. One such method is through animal culture that fosters social learning.
Social learning in animals happens through observation and interactions with other animals, typically within a particular species. Moreover, animal species can learn from members of other generations (e.g., vertical transmission of culture) as well as from members of their own generation (e.g., horizontal transmission of culture). The phenomenon of cultural transmission has led to the sharing of innovative ideas such as the use of tools, as well as more significant practices that have larger survival implications. For example, cultural transmission has been found to encourage animals to try new food sources and migrate to new habitats.
Social learning holds significant promise for facilitating the survival of animal species because it can reduce trial-and-error learning that is not as efficient or effective as learning through knowledge transfers within a species. With that being said, the sustainable positive impact of social learning on animal survival during a period of rapid environmental change is uncertain. Also, social learning can have negative impacts as well, if the learned behavior is no longer beneficial to the animal species. For example, vertical transmission has been found to constrain behavior (in one case, one of three captured killer whales refused to eat fish based on learning from prior generations, and starved to death) while horizontal transmission has been found to expand behavior (in the same case, two of three captured killer whales observed other whales eating fish and learned that eating fish was acceptable).
So why and how is this social learning important for range shifts? The hypothesis is that by putting a new population of species with the current population of species (e.g., conspecifics), the current population can learn from the conspecifics and potentially adapt (expand) their range shifts for a greater chance of survival. One limitation with this approach, however, is that there are not always conspecifics of the target species available. One goal of conservationists is to find opportunities for horizontal cultural transmission, so that biodiversity can be increased, leading to more elastic and expansive pro-survival behaviors of animal species.
Statistical models and process models can be used to help identify optimal scenarios for the practice of horizontal cultural transmission. In any case, the process of human intervention in this phenomenon is highly complicated and involves considerable effort. Animal advocates interested in doing work in the field of climate change mitigation should take note.