Back when I was in high school and college, I learned that one of the major things that separated humans from other species was culture. The ability to develop distinct ways of living that include an understanding of symbols, language, and customs unique to the group was a specifically human trait.
And, ok, so it turned out that other species had more complex communication systems than we thought they did, but still, other animals were assumed to behave according to instinct, not community-specific cultures.
But as with so many things humans have been convinced we alone possess, it’s turning out that other species have cultures, too. One of the clearest examples is the division of orcas into two groups with distinct customs and eating habits; one eats mammals while the other is pescetarian, eating only fish. Though the two groups regularly come in contact with each other in the wild, they do not choose to intermingle or mate with one another. Here’s a video:
Aside from the obvious implications for our understanding of culture, this brings up an issue in terms of conservation. Take the case of orcas. Some are suggesting that they should be on the endangered species list because the population has declined. What do we do if it turns out at some point that, while the overall orca population is not fully endangered, one of the distinct orca cultural groups is? Is it enough that killer whales still exist, or do we need to think of the cultures separately and try to preserve sufficient numbers of each? In addition to being culturally different, they are functionally non-interchangeable: each group has a different effect on food chains and ecosystems.
Should conservation efforts address not just keeping the overall population alive and functioning, but ensure that the range of cultural diversity within a species is protected? If this situation occurred, should we declare one orca culture as endangered but not the other? Are both ecological niches important?
I love these questions. If we recognize that creatures can have cultures, it challenges our sense of self, but also brings significantly more complexity to the idea of wildlife preservation.
Originally posted in 2010.
Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.