Cultural progress in great tits



07.04.2021 13:51

Cultural progress in great tits

Immigration helps bird populations switch to more efficient behaviors

Researchers at the University of Konstanz and the Max Planck Institute for Animal Behavior have found that bird populations are able to adapt culturally and thus become more efficient. The observed great tit populations changed from a traditional behavior to a more effective alternative, provided that there was a gradual exchange of existing group members for external conspecifics. The study, which has just been published in Open Access format in the journal Current Biology, describes immigration as an important driver of cultural change in animals, which enables groups of animals to adapt effectively to rapidly changing environmental conditions.

Scientists understand “culture in animals” as any behavior that has been acquired through social learning, is shared among the members of a group and has persisted in the group for generations. Such cultural traditions are known today from various animal groups. We find them, for example, in primates, whales and dolphins, rodents and birds.

A vivid example of cultural traditions in the animal kingdom was also described in the case of great tits: in the 1920s, it was observed how they opened the sealing film of milk bottles in a city in Great Britain in order to get to the underlying layer of cream. The behavior continued to spread among the great tits over the next 20 years until conspecifics exhibiting the same behavior were found all over Great Britain.

In 2015, scientists experimentally confirmed that great tits are able to maintain cultural traditions. Individual great tits have been taught a new way of behaving – what behavioral researchers call “innovation”. The innovation was then picked up by other, untrained birds and gradually spread within the populations studied.

So far, however, it was not known for great tits or for other animals with cultural traditions whether groups of animals could subsequently change and develop their culture. Are the members of a group doomed to repeat and maintain the same traditional behaviors after a tradition is established within the population? Or can they switch to more efficient behaviors?

The current study now shows that more efficient behavior can displace an already established but less efficient behavior. Fluctuations in the composition of the population, a fundamental process known in English as “population turnover”, were identified as crucial for such a change in existing traditions in animals. The study, in which wild-caught great tits were taught to solve a puzzle while their behavior was tracked with high accuracy, provides quantitative evidence of the animals’ cultural development.

“Experimental evidence of cultural change in animals is very rare. We were therefore surprised and enthusiastic about the results of our study, ”says Michael Chimento, first author of the study and doctoral student in the“ Cognitive and Cultural Ecology ”working group at the Max Planck Institute for Behavioral Biology.

The research team led by Max Plank working group leader Prof. Dr. Lucy Aplin, last author of the study and Principle Investigator of the Cluster of Excellence “Center for the Advanced Study of Collective Behavior” at the University of Konstanz, examined great tit populations that came from the forests around Konstanz. Since wild great tits live in variable social groups in winter, i.e. under harsh environmental conditions, the researchers suspected that immigration could play a role in cultural evolution.

“Due to their lack of experience with the cultural traditions of the group, immigrant conspecifics could have a more unbiased view of possible solutions to existing problems and thereby influence the cultural change within the group,” explains Chimento.

The researchers used great tit populations from formerly wild animals kept in the laboratory to investigate whether and how changing social groups change socially learned, traditional foraging behavior. They formed 18 groups of birds, each of which had access to an automated puzzle box with food reward. As soon as a bird solved the puzzle and thus got the food, the identity of the animal, the type of solution and the required solution time were recorded with the help of RFID and infrared technology as well as computer-aided image processing. Each group also had a “tutor” who was trained to solve the riddle in a comparatively inefficient manner, which then spread throughout the group. Then half of the groups were kept static in the further course. In the other half, individual group members were gradually replaced with new wild-caught animals over a period of four weeks.

Although both group types, static and changeable, developed a more efficient solution to the puzzle task in the course of the experiment, the changeable populations showed a significantly higher probability of adopting this as their preferred behavior. The original group members who were already familiar with the puzzle task were usually the ones who developed the improved solution for the task but did not accept it as their preferred solution. Instead, it was the inexperienced newcomers who picked up and adopted the innovation and thus reinforced the social information available in the group about the more effective solution. In the end, birds from changing groups were able to solve the puzzle more quickly than those from static groups, even though they had less experience overall.
“Great tits seem to do well in man-made habitats compared to other species,” says Chimento. “Our study shows how their changing social dynamics could be part of their secret of success and contribute to their adaptability.”

Fact overview:
• Originalpublikation: Population turnover facilitates cultural selection for efficiency in birds. Michael Chimento, Gustavo Alarcón-Nieto and Lucy Aplin. Current Biology (2021) https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2021.03.057
• Study provides rare experimental evidence that animals are able to change their culture in order to become more efficient
• Using great tit populations, the study demonstrates the crucial role immigrant birds play in the population’s cultural adoption of more efficient behaviors
• Populations in which individual birds were replaced by naive individuals were able to switch from an inefficient to an efficient culture, while static populations without replacing individuals could not
• Michael Chimento and Gustavo Alarcón-Nieto are scientists in the laboratory of Prof. Dr. Lucy Aplin, who heads the “Cognitive and Cultural Ecology” working group at the Max Planck Institute for Animal Behavior. Aplin is also Principle Investigator of the Cluster of Excellence “Center for the Advanced Study of Collective Behavior” at the University of Konstanz
• Research funding: German Research Foundation (DFG) through the Cluster of Excellence 2117 “Center for the Advanced Study of Collective Behavior” within the framework of the federal and state excellence strategy.

Note to the editors:
A photo and video can be downloaded below:

Picture: https://cms.uni-konstanz.de/fileadmin/pi/fileserver/2021_EXTRA/great_tits_change…

Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vlOxRAvT5YQ

Video and caption:
With the help of automated puzzle boxes, which provided a food reward when the puzzle was solved, it was tested whether groups of birds can change socially learned, traditional foraging behavior. When the puzzle was solved, the type of solution, the duration of the solution and the identity of the bird that solved the problem were recorded. Identity recognition was carried out using an antenna hidden in the perch and small transmitters on the birds ‘legs, as well as using barcodes on the animals’ leg harness.

Image and video: Michael Chimento

Contact:
University of Konstanz
Communication and marketing
Phone: + 49 7531 88-3603
Email: kum@uni-konstanz.de

– uni.kn


Scientific contact:

University of Konstanz
Communication and marketing
Phone: + 49 7531 88-3603
Email: kum@uni-konstanz.de

– uni.kn


Originalpublikation:

Population turnover facilitates cultural selection for efficiency in birds. Michael Chimento, Gustavo Alarcón-Nieto and Lucy Aplin. Current Biology (2021) https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2021.03.057


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Biology, cultural studies, animal / land / forest
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