Wednesday, 7 April 2021

Evolution News - Great Tits Have Evolved Flexible Cultures

Great tits (Parus major) can change their culture to become more efficient
Great tits change their traditions for the better | University of Konstanz

How arrogant we once were, before science taught us humility!

When I was young, back in the 1950s, we assumed us humans were exceptional in so many ways that justified believing we must be a special creation with a special purpose, being blessed with so many unique abilities. Human exceptionalism justified so much about religion and our relationship with the rest of nature and the world, which we assumed had been created solely for our benefit to be used as we saw fit. There was even an account in our book of self-justificatory origin myths that related how and why everything was created this way - "And God gave Man dominion..."

But that was in the days before we knew any better. Now we know otherwise.
  • We used to think we were the only 'thinking' beings, now we know that many other species can think and solve problems.
  • We used to think we were the only beings with intelligence enough to make and use tools, now we know many other species also shape and use tools.
  • We used to think we were the only beings with ethics and moral codes, now we know several other species are also empathetic and know the difference between right and wrong in context.
  • We used to think we were the only beings with a sense of self, now we know many other species are self-aware and have a conceptual map of their environment with them at the centre of it.
  • We used to think we were the only beings with cultures, now we know that other species also form cultures which they inherit from their parents and peers.
And, that latter assumption has just taken another blow with the news that a group of researchers at the University of Konstanz and Max Planck Institute for Animal Behavior in Germany have found that birds are able to change their culture to become more efficient. As the University of Konstanz press release explains:
Researchers at the University of Konstanz and Max Planck Institute for Animal Behavior in Germany have found that birds are able to change their culture to become more efficient. Populations of great tits were able to switch from one behavior to a better alternative when their group members were slowly replaced with new birds. Published today as open access in the journal Current Biology, this research reveals immigration as a powerful driver of cultural change in animal groups that could help them to adapt to rapidly changing environments.

In animals, “culture” is considered to be any behavior that is learned from others, shared by members of the group, and persistent over generations. Cultural traditions are known to exist in many animal groups, including primates, dolphins and whales, rodents, and birds.

Great tits provide a classic example of animal culture. In the 1920s, birds in a town in Great Britain were observed to open the foil tops of milk bottles to steal cream. This behavior spread over 20 years, until birds throughout the country were doing the same.

In 2015 scientists experimentally confirmed that great tits were able to maintain cultural traditions. A new way of feeding—what scientists refer to as an innovation—could be taught to a single bird, and that solution would be learned by other birds and gradually spread throughout populations.

But for great tits, and other animals with cultural traditions, it was still not known if groups can change. Once a tradition has taken root, are animals condemned to repeating the same behaviors or can they pivot to more efficient ones?

Experimental evidence of cultural change in animals is pretty rare, so we were surprised and excited by the outcome.

These fluid groups could influence how their culture changes, as new group members might see solutions to problems with clearer eyes, because of their lack of experience.

Great tits seem to do well in and among human-made habitats, compared to other species. Our study shows how their fluid social dynamics might be part of their secret to success and contribute to their flexibility.

Michael Chimento, First author
Doctoral student
Research Group of Cognitive and Cultural Ecology
Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior
Now, the new study has demonstrated that more efficient behaviors can outcompete an established inefficient behavior. It pinpoints a fundamental process—population turnover—as crucial for the ability of animals to change their traditions. The study, which involved teaching wild-caught birds to solve puzzles and fine-scale tracking of their behavior, provides quantitative support for the evolution of culture.

“Experimental evidence of cultural change in animals is pretty rare, so we were surprised and excited by the outcome,” says first author Michael Chimento, a doctoral student in the Research Group of Cognitive and Cultural Ecology at the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior.

The research team led by senior author Lucy Aplin, who is a Max Planck Research Group Leader and also a principal investigator at the Custer of Excellence ‘Centre for the Advanced Study of Collective Behavior’ at the University of Konstanz, studied populations of great tits caught from forests around Konstanz. Because wild great tits form changeable social groups during winter, when conditions are harshest, the scientists thought that immigration could play a part in cultural evolution.

“These fluid groups could influence how their culture changes, as new group members might see solutions to problems with clearer eyes, because of their lack of experience,” says Chimento.

The researchers used captive populations of wild-caught great tits to ask how fluid social groups might change a socially learned feeding tradition. They created 18 groups of birds, each with an automated puzzle-box that gave a reward. When a bird solved the puzzle, the type of solution, time of solution, and identity were recorded using RFID, infrared, and computer vision technology. Each group had a tutor that was trained on a relatively inefficient puzzle solution, which then spread through the group. Then, half of the groups were kept static, and in the other half, group members were gradually replaced with new birds from wild over the course of 4 weeks.

Despite both types of groups innovating a more efficient solution, fluid groups were much more likely to adopt it as their preferred behavior. The original residents, who were experienced with the puzzle, were generally the ones who innovated the efficient solution, but didn’t adopt it as their preferred behavior. The inexperienced immigrants, on the other hand, picked up on this innovation and did adopt it, amplifying the available social information. Birds in fluid groups were able to solve the puzzle-box faster than in static groups, despite having less overall experience.

“Great tits seem to do well in and among human-made habitats, compared to other species,” says Chimento. “Our study shows how their fluid social dynamics might be part of their secret to success and contribute to their flexibility.
Both static and fluid groups were capable of innovating to discover a more efficient solution to a problem, but the fluid ones were quicker to arrive at it and quicker to adopt it. This could also be because once a solution is learned, the 'risk' in doing things differently and so not getting the reward outweighs the gain in hitting upon a better solution by trial and error. Just like in human societies people can be reluctant to experiment with a tried and tested method. It's tempting to see this experiment as a metaphor for human cultures where immigrants can bring in new ideas to be tested and adopted or discarded by the local population by observing others, relatively free from risk.

The team's open access paper was published in Current Biology yesterday:

Highlights


  • We conducted a cultural evolution experiment using captive great tits
  • Gradual replacement of individuals promoted the spread of efficient cultural variants
  • Immigrants played a role as adopters rather than innovators of efficient variants
  • Turnover might be a general mechanism in the cultural evolution of efficiency


Summary


Culture, defined as socially transmitted information and behaviors that are shared in groups and persist over time, is increasingly accepted to occur across a wide range of taxa and behavioral domains.1 While persistent, cultural traits are not necessarily static, and their distribution can change in frequency and type in response to selective pressures, analogous to that of genetic alleles. This has led to the treatment of culture as an evolutionary process, with cultural evolutionary theory arguing that culture exhibits the three fundamental components of Darwinian evolution: variation, competition, and inheritance.2, 3, 4, 5 Selection for more efficient behaviors over alternatives is a crucial component of cumulative cultural evolution,6 yet our understanding of how and when such cultural selection occurs in non-human animals is limited. We performed a cultural diffusion experiment using 18 captive populations of wild-caught great tits (Parus major) to ask whether more efficient foraging traditions are selected for, and whether this process is affected by a fundamental demographic process—population turnover. Our results showed that gradual replacement of individuals with naive immigrants greatly increased the probability that a more efficient behavior invaded a population’s cultural repertoire and outcompeted an established inefficient behavior. Fine-scale, automated behavioral tracking revealed that turnover did not increase innovation rates, but instead acted on adoption rates, as immigrants disproportionately sampled novel, efficient behaviors relative to available social information. These results provide strong evidence for cultural selection for efficiency in animals, and highlight the mechanism that links population turnover to this process.

So, another sacred, exclusive domain of human beings, supposedly granted to them by a creative deity in the sky, topples to scientific enquiry and cultures become an evolved characteristic, subject to Darwinian evolutionary processes. Creationists might like to ponder on the fact that human ethics and morals are simply aspects of human culture and, as secular humanists have long argued, were not handed down by a magic sky deity but are subject to evolution to fit them to the needs of the human species as the species evolves in a changing environment.


Thank you for sharing!









submit to reddit

No comments :

Post a comment

Obscene, threatening or obnoxious messages, preaching, abuse and spam will be removed, as will anything by known Internet trolls and stalkers, by known sock-puppet accounts and anything not connected with the post,

A claim made without evidence can be dismissed without evidence. Remember: your opinion is not an established fact unless corroborated.

Sady, the spammer is back so you'll need to sign on to post comments.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...
Web Analytics