(speaker) Look at that baby.
That is a tiny baby.
(speaker 2) That is a young baby.
It's such a good thing to see, with all of the challenges that elephants face, that there are so many healthy young elephants in this group.
And some of these old matriarchs in here, you can just tell they carry such history.
That they know where to find food year after year.
(host) For a long time, people assumed culture was limited to our own species, but the more that we observe other intelligent animals, big and small, culture may be far more widespread than we first thought.
Hey, what's up, guys?
Hey, hey, what's up?
Hey, how's it going?
We can all agree that humans have culture, right?
Yeah, some of us are more cultured than others, you know, like-- I don't have a mustache.
I mean, is culture something we're born with?
Is culture in our genes?
I mean, we all have genes that tell our bodies to build a mouth and a stomach, right?
And we have these instincts that tell us what's probably food and what's probably not food, but it's culture that tells you whether you eat pita or pizza in any given meal.
This is like the difference of eating hotdish versus casserole.
And, for the record, it's hotdish.
It's casserole-- I think it's casserole.
Talking about a dish to pass?
It's a--it's a hotdish to pass.
We'll debate this later, guys.
Anyway, what I want to talk about today is that we're beginning to appreciate that culture is far more widespread among animals than we used to realize, and it's often in ways that are really surprising and unexpected.
It's a story that's going to take us from an elephant family reunion in Tanzania to some acoustic detectives under the Golden Gate Bridge.
We're going to talk about whether other animals have culture too, and whether it's like ours or not.
And if other animals do have a culture, what can that teach us about ourselves?
[inquisitive music] Can you just define what culture is for a second?
Okay, I mean, culture is one of those things, like, you know it when you see it, right?
It's a little bit hard to define, but let's give it a shot.
Culture is information and habits and behavior that can be passed around socially.
They can be learned, remembered, and shared.
That totally makes sense, Joe.
I feel like you shared that with me, and I will socially remember it and learn it.
I'm very cultured; that's why I was able to define that.
Let's go back for a minute.
The earliest awareness of non-human animal culture is probably a study going back to the 1950s on Japanese macaque monkeys.
One day, one grabs a sweet potato and washes it in the water before eating it.
Then the monkeys in the first monkey's social network started washing their sweet potatoes.
Soon, all the monkeys on this island are washing their potatoes, something only the macaques onthisisland started doing that they learned from others and shared with others.
And later, Jane Goodall and other researchers made animal culture famous by their studies on chimpanzees.
But I think that maybe these aren't that surprising because, you know, monkeys, chimpanzees, they're like our cousins.
We have culture, so it's maybe not so surprising that they do too.
But since those early studies, scientists have added more animals to the culture list.
Get in, jokers, we're going to Africa.
(Joe) This is amazing, we just-- we just rolled up on an elephant, my first elephant.
Your first elephant?
(Joe) You guys remember Jahawi, right?
He's a filmmaker and photographer from Kenya that joined me on this trip.
My first elephant.
(Joe) I mean, it's not my elephant.
It's the first elephant I've seen.
Elephants belong to no one.
(Jahawi) He's his own elephant.
(Joe) He is his own elephant.
Why is this elephant all by itself?
(Jahawi) So this is a young male, and like you saw when we first saw him, he was all feisty.
It's kind of like that teenage energy of, you know, "Take me seriously."
(Joe) Yeah, "I'm tough.
I'm a tough elephant."
(Jahawi) Yeah, but, you know, he's probably recently been pushed out of the family group.
You know, after young males get to a certain age, they tend to slowly get pushed away.
Let's pause for a second and just talk about the elephant family dynamic.
They live in these groups of a few to maybe a few dozen individuals.
Now, when male elephants in these groups hit 12 to 15 years old, they get pushed out of the group to live on their own.
These are matriarchal societies, and they're led by an older female.
And within that group, you'll have that female and her sisters, their kids, even their grandkids.
It's a multi-generational society, and they do basically everything together, from feeding to, I don't know, pouring mud on themselves, whatever elephants do all day, even helping raise each other's kids.
So there's our first ingredient.
That extended time of care and learning, that's important.
Okay, so after I saw my first elephant, I got pretty good at finding elephants, if I do say so myself.
How could you miss it?
They're very big.
They're very well camouflaged.
So we were just looking at giraffe's skeleton, and I turned around and looked through my binoculars, and there's more elephants on the horizon.
We're going to see more elephants.
We're going to go see more elephants--yeah, good spotting.
You're actually useful.
I've earned my place on the trip.
And then Jahawi learned a very important lesson.
Anyway, a good lesson learned is always put fresh batteries in your camera in the morning.
So you're ready for the elephant in the flowers... photo you always wanted.
And that's one way that we learn, right?
By trial and error.
And sure enough, the next day, Jahawi had full batteries in his camera, and he got that picture that he wanted.
(Emily) Aw, that's so nice.
But individual learning by trial and error, it does have its limitations.
I mean, for one, it's kind of risky, right?
If every elephant had to learn what foods were toxic and what weren't then, well, there'd be a lot fewer elephants out there.
Individual learning is limited to your own experiences, but social learning, that lets you learn from the experiences of everyone.
I mean, you can learn what generations worth of individuals have figured out.
It's like getting a hotdish recipe from your grandma and posting it to social media.
We'll talk-- I still have no idea what you guys are talking about, but it's cute.
Anyway, this opens up so many possibilities for elephants.
I mean, they have these huge brains.
They are super intelligent.
And those brains make them really good at learning from one another.
You know, stuff like how to give yourself the perfect mud bath or which flowers taste the tastiest.
I think it's the yellow ones.
That's what they all seem to be eating.
Elephants even learn what we would call rituals, I guess, like mourning dead elephants.
(Emily) Oh, man, that's so sad though.
So do all elephant families do this?
Yeah, most do, but they do it in their own way.
And that's what's important.
Imagine many generations of elephants witnessing and sharing this special behavior.
I mean, where do we get our culture from?
We learned it from our elders, from our families, from our social circles.
Have you guys ever heard the saying "An elephant never forgets"?
I can't remember.
I mean, elephants, they forget tons of stuff, but remembering plays a critical part in their cultural lives.
So you just heard from the other car that there's a big group of ellies.
That's a big, big group of ellies.
(Joe) So in front of us all-- I mean, more than a dozen, maybe 20, 30 elephants?
(Jahawi) One, two, three, four, five, six--there could be over 30.
There's more over there.
Wow, that's a lot of ellies.
We'll keep our distance for now.
I mean, they'll eventually relax around us.
[elephants trumpeting] (Joe) We've been trying to get close to this beautiful family group of elephants but they're just really, really-- They're worked up.
They're very mad, doing a lot of defensive displays, and trumpeting at us.
And they very clearly don't want us around.
Yeah, it was strange.
I mean, we came up to this massive herd and obviously a few family groups, but they were agitated.
And like, that one... [trumpeting] is not a happy elephant.
Now, potentially what that could be is negative association, and we were trying to figure out if there are any hunting dogs near here because sometimes that causes ellies to be quite shy of vehicles and react that way, but... (Joe) Yeah, they've had some bad experiences... (Jahawi) With humans before, that could be a memory that was passed down to this elephant from its mother.
(Joe) I mean, think about that-- somewhere in these elephants' social memory is this association that vehicles with these weird little primates inside, well, that's bad.
And so they stay away from us.
And what's super interesting is that the elephants that are behaving this way, they might have never actually had that experience themselves.
And later, we observed this totally different family group and the matriarch was wearing this GPS collar.
You can imagine one day, these scientists drove up in a vehicle a lot like ours, they drugged her, they put that thing on, and it probably wasn't a very fun day for her.
And she made sure that her family stayed far away from us.
I can totally imagine this elephant modeling a behavior to her kids, you know, "Yo, stay away from those loud things."
She might've even passed this experience to other elephants, like in a social or cultural memory.
She gets on Elephantbook, and she's like, "Watch out for the cars."
Well, their memory is clearly working.
So they're worked up.
We're going to let them be.
It's not the only elephants out here.
And I think we can find some more.
We can find some more.
Now, all of this chasing elephants, it was leading us to something that I don't think any of us were expecting.
As we drove up onto this big open plain, there were just elephants everywhere.
[trumpeting] (Jahawi) Isn't this just incredible?
That word doesn't even do enough to describe how I'm feeling.
This is over a hundred elephants.
(Joe) So, I mean, it's the Serengeti.
The sun was starting to get pretty intense, and these elephants had all spread themselves out to where there's, like, one little family group under each tree kind of getting a little bit of shade, taking a little break.
(Jahawi) And, you know, when we're looking from a distance, it looked like they were all together.
But if you see here now, they're very much still in kind of family groups.
When they get to a certain size, they can split.
So you can imagine that family group probably has relatives in that group.
It probably has relatives, you know?
So these kinds of times of plenty, you get these herds that come together, and you do have, you know, social interaction because they're incredibly social animals.
(Joe) They know each other.
(Emily) This is like an elephant reunion.
Who brought the hotdish?
It's casserole-- well, I guess "grasserole" is more appropriate in this case, but... Oh, my gosh.
Ah, so proud of myself for that, okay.
You shouldn't be.
(Joe) This is one of the most incredible things I have ever seen in my life, guys.
I mean, they were out there just checking each other out, socializing, seeing who's who, making all kinds of noises.
You could just tell that there was a huge amount of information being exchanged out there.
Information about what?
I don't know.
I don't know.
I don't speak elephants.
But inside all of these social groups kind of tucked in by the tree underneath Mom's legs were the most important guests at this elephant reunion.
(Jahawi) The young baby.
That's under a year old for sure.
It's kind of an easy way to try and figure out the age of a young one.
If it kind of fits underneath Mum, it's like a year old.
That's the cutest thing I've ever seen.
Keep it together, Graslie.
I have so many feelings.
Well, not as cute as my kids.
But like, just--there's my kids and there's that baby elephant.
It was close.
(Jahawi) I haven't seen your kids, so I don't know.
They're pretty cute.
Now here's maybe the most important thing when it comes to animal culture.
Culture doesn't just tell an animal how to live in this place.
It tells them how to survive.
I mean, culture influences survival.
Up in Kenya in Amboseli National Park in 2009, there was this epic drought.
We're talking one of the worst droughts in decades, and hundreds of elephants died, but survival was higher in family groups that had matriarchs that were old enough to remember the last time that there was a drought this bad.
They held some cultural memory that reminded them where the last sources of water might be.
This researcher named Cynthia Moss, she puts it really great.
She says these elephant families are "old enough for wisdom."
I just love that.
So when these older elephants aren't around to pass on knowledge to the younger ones, they might not survive.
Exactly, and that is one reason why it's so important to protect these elephants.
They are the keepers of knowledge.
I mean, that's culture.
And if they die, then the knowledge of how to live and survive in this place might die with them.
Well, if we keep talking about this, we'll start saying really ridiculous things... (Jahawi) Yeah.
about the wonder of the cosmos.
(Jahawi) How you can see the entire universe reflected in an elephant's eye if you stare long enough at it.
So I think we can all get behind the fact that elephants are amazing.
They can pass culture to each other.
But it's not just us and them.
Other animals also share knowledge and they pass on culture.
We mentioned chimpanzees earlier.
That's a really obvious one, but there's also dolphins.
They share tool use and foraging behavior.
Humpback whales share songs that actually can spread like pop music across the ocean.
And, in fact, the more we look for culture in animals, the more animals we find to have culture, which is why I went to San Francisco to meet the researchers studying white-crowned sparrows.
He'll probably pop up on one of these bushes first.
(speaker) Sounds angry.
(Ruth) Oh, yeah.
Here he comes.
(speaker) Got him.
Hey, little guy.
Mike makes this part look very easy, but I promise that it's not.
(Joe) Those are just little birds.
I see them all over the city.
That's not where I thought we were going.
They are way smarter than you think.
And it has a really easy-to-study culture because of their birdsong.
That sounds like a spring morning.
I love that bird.
Yeah, they're super cute.
They make this very distinctive sound.
And just like a baby learning to walk or eat or watch the iPad, these birds learn how to thrive in their environment when they're young.
They actually learn these songs.
And their songs function as a territorial marker, but also show off the fitness of the bird, right?
Better songs mean the bird is strong and ready for a mate.
But, the birds, they're not born knowing how to sing.
They have to practice to get good at it.
They probably can't learn to sing Queen, but they're capable within their biological abilities of singing different variations on this song.
And the teenage birds have this limited window to learn it.
They learn fast.
They learn to sing from their father or other birds in the area.
And they practice to sing like them.
They practice a lot, like all the time, and they listen to their song and they tweak it and they find what works for them.
It's like learning any new skill.
Oh, it's like babies babble before they talk.
And they're like "I'm a baby.
[babbling] (Trace) Yeah.
And it's the same with these birds.
That's why we were so excited to accompany Ruth and Mike out into the Marin Headlands to listen to these white-crowned sparrows because we saw this cultural practice in practice.
I can hear, but I'm not necessarily sure what I'm listening for.
(Ruth) It's like, "Do, do, do-do-do."
It's cute, right?
This song is one of the most studied sounds in all of animal behavior.
Can you believe that?
There's so much more to the song that our ears can actually hear because we're not birds.
The birds are looking for amplitude and pitch and speed, but, to us, it all sort of sounds the same.
Ruth actually carries around this little Bluetooth speaker, and she plays what's called a conspecific sparrow call, sort of like the standard call that we know will activate the other birds.
And I have to say, they get a little sassy.
(Ruth) They hear the playback and they get really mad and they zoom into the net.
The bird thinks, "Who's that singing on my territory?"
He runs to see who it is and gets netted.
In order to understand the bird culture, they have to catch and band them to give them a unique code.
(Ruth) So when we come back to map his territory or record his song, we know who we're recording.
(Trace) And you can spot him from afar based on his color.
(Trace) So in the future, Ruth and Mike or other researchers can look up that code without having to catch the bird again.
And once they'd heard I'd never actually touched a bird, they let me release a couple, which was really cool.
Wait, you've never touched a bird before?
I wasn't allowed to touch them as a kid, Joe.
Don't--let's not talk about it.
Probably good advice.
So once they've been banded, they know who is singing and where they're moving.
So we caught up with Ruth and her advisor, Jenny, a bit later at the Golden Gate Bridge to do that bit.
So we're here to find some researchers who've been listening to these sparrows, you know, dating back decades.
It's going to be pretty cool.
We've got Ruth and Jenny.
Let me put on my mask.
(Trace) How's the sparrow hunt?
(Jenny) It's going good.
We've got a angry little male.
So he has a territory down here right below the Golden Gate Bridge.
(Trace) Not a bad spot.
Yeah, I think this is pretty good territory other than the noise, right?
Well, as it's gotten noisier, songs have gotten higher-pitched in general, and they've gotten narrower in their pitch range, or bandwidth, and they've gotten faster.
And that leads to lower vocal performance.
(Jenny) And so vocal performance is one way the females can assess that male.
The research on these white crowns, it started decades ago, back in the 1950s and '60s, and there were lots of different song variations across different populations, lots of different ways for white crowns to sing.
But as the world got louder, the birdsongs started to change.
And over time, the culture of this high-pitched song spread to all of the birds in this area.
So our culture got louder, and we made theirs more boring in the process?
Yeah, because they couldn't be heard.
These little variations and personal touches that the birds added during their practicing, they've mostly disappeared in favor of this one loud, high-pitched warble that mostly just says, "I'm here," but doesn't give a lot of nuanced information about the bird.
And the thing is, we, the humans, we kept running into this problem while trying to record their songs too.
The highway noise is a lot.
It's pretty loud.
Human noise, it just kept getting in the way, and more and more.
We weren't slowing down.
And then something happened.
The COVID-19 pandemic.
It changed the world, and all at once, everything got quiet again.
And that's why Jenny and Ruth are out here right now.
(Jenny) The young birds learned their song in 2020 during the pandemic and there was hardly any traffic at all.
So they had a, you know, quiet soundscape, and so they could actually hear themselves practice.
They could hear their fathers and their neighbors singing.
What did they sound like?
Could you tell a difference?
Okay, let's play a couple for you.
Here's the noisy environment.
[birdsong over traffic] And here's the quiet environment.
[birdsong, light traffic] I can't tell a difference.
I'm glad you said that because I can't either, actually.
It's tough without bird ears, because we're really only talking about, like, a few hundred Hertz, which is why the scientists use these things called spectrograms.
They're basically sound fingerprints.
And when you look at these, you can really tell the difference.
And, the birds, they can, of course, hear the difference.
So we went all over the place.
We're listening to these sparrow calls, and--this is wild--we actually heard a bird dialect.
(Jenny) Thinking about culture, Trace.
(Trace) Yeah, yeah.
(Jenny) This male, you'll notice, has a stutter note in his complex note.
And that's one little cultural trait that we tend to see here at Lobos dunes only.
So listen for after the whistle.
He's got kind of a little jump in the middle of that first long note.
So we call those buzzes.
And most of them just do kind of a long buzz.
(Jenny) But he does a stutter buzz.
That's what I call it, at least.
And that only happens here.
So let me get this straight.
Is you saying birds have different accents depending on where--what neighborhoods they're from?
I mean, I'm not saying it like that, but, yes, that is what I'm saying.
They do have different dialects.
And some of them haven't been completely wiped out by human noise yet.
So this whole thing started with a guy named Luis Baptista.
He actually originated this whole arm of research and discovered that these birds have culture at all.
He was working as an ornithologist.
And while outside having lunch one day, he listened to the birds, and he realized that these sparrows had slightly different calls than the birds in another part of the city, and he documented all these different calls.
During that time, old dialects were getting shoved aside for these higher-pitched modern songs, thanks to human noise pollution.
And he watched the bird culture change in real-time.
I mean, when the pandemic happened and the noise levels dropped so dramatically in the city, we could say that's the quietest it's been in 50 years because of Baptista's recording.
So do you know--were the birds returning to their old song, the less noisy version?
(Trace) So Jenny and Ruth are still trying to figure this out.
We know that the birds have culture.
And we know that the culture is shifting, but we don't actually know what's going to happen.
Once a cultural shift kind of commits, it's difficult to reverse it.
And now, these newer white-crowned sparrows' songs they're established in the population.
And it might be too late to bring back the old variety that was there a half-century ago.
And in fact, studies with the young birds, they don't want to listen to the oldies.
Okay, so this makes me think of how humans share cultural experiences and build on it.
Just like the elephants, the sparrows are able to communicate something to their kids, and it gets passed on and passed on from there.
It's sort of like how science evolves over time, where you take in new information and tweak your hypothesis.
Centuries ago, a few people realized that willow bark contained something that would cure headaches.
And today, people everywhere know it as aspirin.
That is culture.
And all that sharing doesn't just affect our choices, but it can also affect our objective reality.
Just like with the sparrows, who don't love the old birds' music, because, remember, that's how they pick their mates.
If they don't like the songs, they're not going to mate.
And when culture is at risk, individuals or even species are at risk.
You guys know this term biodiversity?
It's basically one way that we measure the health of ecosystems, right?
Now, on one level, you've got genetic diversity, and then on another level above that, you've got how many species there are in a particular habitat or ecosystem.
And then finally, you've got, sort of, how many habitats and ecosystems.
But I'm realizing, when it comes to the diversity of life, that doesn't quite cover it.
For many species, I think there's another dimension of biodiversity-- cultural diversity, and I think we're just beginning to appreciate how rich that is.
We're not so different from these other animals that we share the planet with, and it makes you think, "If our ways of living deserve to survive, well, don't theirs too?"
Something to think about.
We'll see you in the next chapter.
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