“Kilroy was here”.
The doodle of a bald man with a fat nose peeking over a wall was a popular graffiti drawn by American soldiers wherever they were posted during World War II. ‘Kilroy’, some theories suggest, came from ‘Foo’, a drawing by Australian soldiers during World War I.
It was probably one of the world’s first memes.
Foo, Kilroy, Chad, Some, Clem, Flywheel – all were versions of the same meme, representative of all the contemporary contexts that lie behind each of the thousands of memes that traverse the average millennial’s phone today.
But humans haven’t been the first, or even the only ones, to use memes as a means and expression of contemporary culture.
The non-human world has been passing memes around for longer. Mimetic objects have always been an indelible part of animal culture – another aspect that humans once thought was “an apparent hallmark of human uniqueness”.
The word ‘meme’ owes its origins to evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, who, in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene, wanted a word that sounded like “gene” to describe the phenomenon where animals transmitted their ‘culture’: social behaviour and skills learnt by observation and improvised jugaad that didn’t come embedded in their genetic toolkit.
In a 2012 TEDx talk, Canadian marine biologist Hal Whitehead said culture is what we get from others, “like our religion from our parents, our clothing style from our peers, our political views from our professors”. In the case of sperm whales off the coast of Galapagos islands, he observed, it was foraging behaviour, communicated through a Morse-like ‘click’ code of their own.
“We identified two social units in the population, with the ‘regular’ group going ‘click-click-click’ and the ‘plus-one’ group going ‘click-click-click—click’, like the Canadian ‘a’ at the end of each sentence,” he recalled.
Sperm whale social units are generally made up of females and juvenile males, while adult males tend to live solitary lives. These units comprise both related and unrelated individuals, which means any collective behaviour that the group demonstrates is not necessarily rooted in their genes.
“Young sperm whales learn from their mother and other members of the clan, like how we do things. The situation was comparable to two ethnic groups living in the same area, doing their own thing, aware of each other but rarely interacting, almost like multiculturalism,” Whitehead said.
Multiculturalism has been observed in other mammals too – primarily cetaceans like dolphins, whales and orcas, and in non-human primates like chimpanzees, capuchin monkeys and macaques.
Among primatologists, a 1965 study on Koshima island in Japan by Kyoto University researchers is legendary. A Japanese macaque adult female, nicknamed Imo (Japanese for ‘potato’), would dig up sweet potatoes, carry them to the stream, wash the sweet potato to clean off the dirt and sand and then eat it, instead of just dusting it.
Imo’s mother, siblings, older and younger playmates quickly followed. The behaviour slowly spread throughout the troop, reaching 99 individuals. In what was labelled the “hundredth monkey effect”, the same social behaviour spread to other troops of macaques separated from the original troop by water.
However, not all animals learn unique skills by just watching and copying.
Nut-cracking was believed to be typical for all the populations of Western chimpanzees in Africa. Using differently sized rocks, chimps use them as a hammer and an anvil to carefully pound nuts of the oil palm tree, breaking the shell but not the kernel within, demonstrating the use of judgement in selecting the perfect tools and learning, through experience, how much force to use.
The behaviour – considered ground-breaking in itself – was observed in only a small subset of the total Western chimpanzee population, occurring in Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Côte d’Ivoire, but not in other populations across Africa, even when the same nuts were present as foods.
Chimps aren’t the only ones hammering it away. Bearded capuchin monkeys in northeastern Brazil do it too, to crack open seven different varieties of nuts by tap-testing the strength of rocks for hammering, and setting up ‘workshops’ where younger monkeys watch older ones at work.
Deciding that a particular behaviour has been socially learnt, especially for animals in the wild, is often a tough call. Primatologist Anindya Sinha, who has studied behaviour in macaques in both urban and wild settings, said it is hard to tell which behaviour is innate and which socially learnt.
“We once observed a female bonnet macaque in the campus of an agriculture college in Bangalore, who would make a particular cooing sound when she approached people to ask for food. No other monkey did this. Over time, she gave birth to four babies, who – when they became juveniles – started emulating their mother and asked for food the same way,” Sinha said.
However, in another part of the country, he has observed juvenile macaques learning from each other. “They would wave at tourists and make a cooing sound, to ask for food. None of the adults did that,” he explained.
Researchers assert that learning such behaviour depends principally on the environment the animal population lives in, since the constant flux of changes, whether natural or driven by humans, would mean animals are constantly trying to make the best of it.
In a 2019 interview, marine biologist Philippa Brakes explained that social learning in animals is often a survival strategy. “Social learning can be particularly important for adapting to changes in the environment. For example, through the spread of new foraging behaviours when one food source becomes depleted, social learning can allow for the use of new food types,” she said.
Knowledge of what to eat can also be accompanied by knowing where to find it. Older matriarchs in elephant herds often have life-saving knowledge of where to find food and water in times of scarcity, leading their herds on routes they learnt themselves from elephants who came before.
Different elephant populations across Africa have also displayed different reactions to human presence, with some even managing to tell apart spear-carrying Maasai warriors and a less threatening farming tribe, and their age and gender, just by their voice and scents.
But to even get such insights into the complex social lives of animals, the animals in question have to be alive and safe from natural and human threats. As Sinha asked “How do you protect a particular species if you don’t know how it behaves?”
He narrated the example of lion-tailed macaques – a species endemic to the Western Ghats in India – and their use of a canopy bridge built for animal crossings. “The bamboo structure erected was meant to be used as a crossing bridge for all animals, but a few macaques began to use it as a vantage point. Soon, the whole troop was there, effectively restricting other animals,” he said.
Humans constructed what they thought animals would see to be a bridge. Instead, the macaques saw an outpost and set up camp there to look out for predators.
“Social learning is a crucial aspect of animal behaviour. If you plan to build corridors and sanctuaries for endangered animals, it is essential to know what the species will make of that space,” Sinha said. “If you introduce, say, lions in a place they haven’t been known to live in before, the prey species in that area won’t know what to make of them, since they haven’t learnt through each other that this is a threat.”
In 2014, social learning and animal culture was, for the first time, linked to conservation. The Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS) amassed a body of research on social learning in whales and dolphins to push for more holistic conservation efforts.
Brakes, who heads the CMS Animal Culture Working Group, considers this a fundamental change in how conservation usually works, which tends to treat a species as homogenous and undifferentiated by cultural boundaries, ignoring different ways animal groups use resources, behave and pass on their genes.
“Understanding the cultural delineation between these groups and how that influences how they use their environment helps us better understand how to conserve them,” she said in 2019.
CMS defines this as a two-way approach: deciding on what should be conserved (the unit of the animal population) and “how we conserve species (for example, through providing better outcomes for reintroduction programs for endangered species of birds that are bred in captivity).”
However, using social learning in reintroduction programmes still has a lot of challenges. Teaching migration routes to birds bred in captivity may not convey everything young birds learn from their elders during long migrations – which, Brakes explained, could also include parenting skills.
“We still have a lot to learn ourselves,” she admitted.
In a 2020 conference held in Gandhinagar, India, CMS began focusing on its first two species for animal culture conservation: the eastern tropical Pacific sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus) and the nut-cracking chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes), both of which feature on the IUCN Red List.
Studies of the sperm whale populations have revealed that cultural transmission of vocal patterns in sperm whales gave rise to distinct vocal clans. These clans varied in their feeding success during the weather changes brought by El Niño and La Niña, and are thus likely to be severely affected by climate change.
“In a rapidly changing world, understanding how social learning and culture can help species respond to climate change, or how they may be more vulnerable to some of these changes, will enable us to better understand their resilience or vulnerability,” the CMS team explained.
The survival of one group of a species, in one pocket of the world, is clearly not enough. Loss of others would mean an ecological and cultural loss, a decimation of intelligence learnt painstakingly over lifetimes longer than human ones.
Renuka Kulkarni is a science writer based in Pune, India, and is currently pursuing a PhD in political ecology.