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Last Updated: Monday, 26 July, 2004, 09:39 GMT 10:39 UK
Can animals culturally evolve?
By Jacqueline Ali
BBC News Online

A black-legged kittiwake (Rissa tridactyla), Science
The kittiwake uses "public information" to make the right decisions
Just like humans, many animals make crucial everyday decisions, such as what to eat and who to breed with, by looking at what their peers are doing.

But learning by observation is more than just a good idea - it could be key to the way species change, says a review in the journal Science.

Birds, fish, insects and even plants have all proved to imitate beneficial behaviour of others in their species.

Over time, say scientists, this could alter their evolutionary patterns.

Animals are much more aware of what others are doing than we imagined before
Etienne Danchin
Previously, animal evolution was thought to be determined solely by genetic factors.

But the latest studies suggest that less obvious factors may also be at work.

When animals are involved successfully in activities such as foraging, breeding or house-hunting, they unconsciously give off cues that can be interpreted by others in their species.

These cues, called "public information" (PI), allow onlookers to imitate the positive behaviour and reap the rewards, says Professor Etienne Danchin, of the CNRS research institution, Paris, France.

This is preferable to other methods of learning, such as trial and error, because the risks involved are lower and it requires less energy than doing something over and over until success is achieved.

Also, because environmental conditions are constantly changing, relying on inherited information will not always provide optimal results.


Even tiny creatures such as the fruit fly appear to use PI to adapt and evolve.

Professor Danchin describes the animals' observation of these public cues as a kind of eavesdropping.

"Animals are much more aware of what others are doing than we imagined before," he told BBC News Online. "They can get a lot of information about their environment by just observing."

One such animal is the kittiwake, which chooses its habitats according to those which have been successfully tried and tested by its peers.

Then there are Norway rats, which will smell the breath of their fellow rodents to determine the tastiest morsels out of an unfamiliar selection.

Fruit fly, BBC
Even the fruit fly can learn from its neighbours
Danchin and his colleagues also cite a study on guppies, in which the female fish, despite having a heritable preference for brightly coloured mates, happily chose drab coloured male partners if they observed other females doing the same.

In fact, a growing body of evidence suggests cultural transmission of public information may result in shifts in the phenotype (physical characteristics) of a species, ultimately playing a large part in its evolution.

"Until very recently, people tended to think that only humans were capable of 'cultural evolution'," said Professor Danchin. "We suggest that the role of cultural factors in the evolution of animals may be much greater than previously thought."

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