Conserving and Managing Animals That Learn Socially and Share Cultures

Article excerpt

Socially learned behavior can be a crucial factor in how animals interact with their environment and, thus, in conservation and management. For species in which social learning and culture are important determinants of behavior, several factors complicate conservation and management. These include the rapid spread of novel behavior through social learning, the inhibition of adaptive behavior because of cultural conformism, the evolution of maladaptive behavior, and the development of culturally isolated but sometimes sympatric groups. These factors can affect habitat suitability, movements, how animals react to anthropogenic effects, and genetic structures. Social learning and culture may be important factors in translocation success, and should sometimes be considered when delineating population units for conservation and management. We should aim to protect cultural as well as genetic diversity. Unfortunately, clear data on social learning and culture in the wild are scarce. Hence, the ideas and methods outlined in this special issue have great potential.

The goal of wildlife conservation is to protect species and their habitats, that of wildlife management to make the exploitation of wild species sustainable (Festa-Bianchet & Apollonio, 2004). As human pressure on the natural world increases, the conservation and management of wildlife have become more challenging. The better the scientific input into conservation and management, the more effective these are likely to be. This is true at strategic levels (e.g., a regional conservation plan) as well as in the development of tactics (e.g., how we can regulate the exploitation of a particular species whose products have become much more valuable). Of the many scientific inputs that go into conservation and management decisions, the biology of the species themselves is particularly crucial. Behavior is a crucial element of an organism's phenotype and is often the principal way in which it interacts with its inanimate, biological, and social environments. Thus, the ways in which animals behave, as well as the patterns of behavior within and between populations, are often crucial when managing and conserving wildlife (Sutherland, 1998). Both the nature of behavior and the patterning of behavior within the population are dependent on how it is transmitted, whether genetically or through social learning. Socially learned behavior depends on the kind of social learning (imitation, emulation, teaching, experience, etc.) and on the relationship between the learner and the model. For instance, vertically or obliquely transmitted behavior, learned from parents or other elders, tends to be more stable than behavior learned horizontally from peers (Cavalli-Sforza, Feldman, Chen, & Dornbusch, 1982). As was attested by earlier articles in this issue, social learning has peculiar effects on behavior. It can cause behavior to spread very rapidly through a population or to be highly conserved (Richerson & Boyd, 2005). It can lead to conformity, maladaptation, ecological success, or ecological disaster. Socially learned group-specific behavior is the essence of culture (Laland, Kendal, & Kendal, 2009).1 Thus, the process of social learning and its product-culture- can have major impacts on how animals and their populations interact with humans and, consequently, on how we manage and conserve them.

In this article, I will consider how social leaning and culture can affect some of the principal scientific areas of concern in the conservation and management of wild animals. The section headings reflect these areas. In each section, I will summarize the principal challenges to effective conservation and management and the actual or potential effects of social learning or culture within the target population. Several attributes of social learning and culture are particularly relevant to conservation and management.

Rapid spread of novel behavior through social learning. …