Home            Animal Culture

Animal and Human Culture

Of course Humans have culture.  In fact we have many different and extremely complex cultures.  But do animals have culture?

The answer to this question depends on how you define culture.  If you use a definition that requires specific Human characteristics, you automatically exclude animals. 

However, there is little doubt that some groups of animals have something like culture in the sense of learned behaviour passed on by learning from one generation to another.  This is quite separate from things being passed on genetically.

A Cultural Revolution

In considering animal culture we need to accept that our understanding of some animals is rudimentary.

We do not know why Whales sing. We do know that their songs are complex and not random.

The Humpback Whales of Australian waters suddenly changed their song.  Apparently a Whale came up with another song that was so popular that soon all the Whales were singing it.  We do not understand the significance of this at all.

Human Dolphin Culture

Dolphins catch and eat fish.  One of their normal strategies is to herd a school of fish and trap it against the shore.  One group of Bottlenose Dolphins has taken this basic tactic a little further. 

At Laguna in Brazil the Dolphins chase schools of fish towards the shore.  Then they signal to the waiting fishermen to throw their nets.  The Dolphins feast on the fish the Humans miss, and the fishermen and their families get a good meal.

This has been going on since at least 1847 and has become part of the culture of the fishermen and their families of the area, being passed on from one generation to the next.

However, it must also have been passed on for a greater number of generations of Dolphin in the area.  It is now part of the cultural tradition of both species.

Photo By Arnaud 25 [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

Different Dolphin Cultures at Shark Bay

In Human societies there are many overlapping cultures. These can be of different generations, people of different ethnic origins or simply different groups of friends. Can similar things happen with animals?

At Shark Bay in Western Australia two different groups of Dolphins have come up with completely different novel ways of fishing.  One family group catches fish from the seabed with the aid of pieces of sponge.

Another group has learned to catch fish in water only a few centimetres deep by building up speed and aquaplaning the last little bit, catching the fish.  Although the Dolphin is then in very shallow water, they seem to be able to judge it well enough to avoid being stranded. 

If one did get stranded they would have to hope that some of the many tourists who visit this area would help them back into the water. The tourist culture mostly does not include the eating of stranded Dolphins.

Ape Culture

In different groups of Chimpanzee there are different behaviours that appear to be learned, and nothing to do with any different conditions.  These things may be as simple as different techniques, requiring different tools to get Termites out of their nest.

Chimpanzee and Bonobo Culture                    Photo By Aaron Logan (from
                                                                                                                                                                                                        /gallery/albums.php) [CC-BY-1.0 (www.creativecommons. 
                                                                                                                                                                                                              org/licenses/by/1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

But, I wonder about the completely different ways Chimpanzees and Bonobos behave towards others in their groups.

In Chimpanzees the group is completely dominated by the larger and more powerful males.  There is an Alpha Male, but unlike the Gorillas, he does not have exclusive right to mate with the Females.

In Bonobos, although observation indicates that there is an Alpha male, the society is dominated by the physically smaller females.

Chimpanzees will fight and can kill each other, while fighting is not normal with Bonobos, and lethal violence has never been recorded.


These are two related species of similar intelligence. In both cases they are sexually dimorphic with the males being significantly bigger than the females.

There is no obvious physical reason for their totally different societies. Some people have tried to explain the differences in the different conditions of their respective  habitats.  Although there may be some truth in this idea, to me it more explains the origins of the difference rather than the mechanism of its continuation.

The truth is that we really do not know how the difference is maintained, but I think that it is mainly cultural, not genetic. Naturally, if it is cultural; the two species may have evolved along the lines of the cultural difference.

This is difficult to be sure of by observation alone, and any experiment in the wild would seriously put the animals at risk.

Zoo Culture

In zoos, animals may behave differently from in the wild.  At Monarto Zoo near Adelaide South Australia there is a group of four male Chimpanzees.  These four animals are friends. When the most highly strung one climbed to the highest point of their exercise bars he panicked when he saw Humans riding Camels.  One of the others went up and comforted him.

This is a completely unnatural group.  For one thing there are no females.  There is also no Alpha male.  

But, little do they know;  there are four young, sexually mature, females on the way.  The interactions will be interesting to observe.

Possibly the Chimpanzees of Monarto will build up a more peaceful culture than normal wild Chimpanzee culture.

Bonobo using a stick to catch termites.
Observations suggest that different groups of the same species of ape use variations of technique and tool, and that some of these variations are learned by the next generation.
Photo taken at San Siego Zoo by User:Mike R
on 8 August, 2005. Wikimedia Commons.
This file is licensed under the Creative Commons