Vocal culture in New Caledonian crows Corvus moneduloides
Bluff LA., Kacelnik A., Rutz C.
While recent research suggests that some animal species may possess 'cultural' traditions, much of the current evidence for wild populations remains contentious. This is largely due to the difficulty of demonstrating a fundamental prerequisite for the existence of culture: social learning. As the only case where social learning has been demonstrated conclusively, and subsequently linked to spatial or temporal trait variation, avian vocal dialects are the best studied, and most widely accepted, form of animal culture. Here, we investigate the potential for vocal culture in one of the few animals for which material culture has been suggested: the New Caledonian crow Corvus moneduloides. We show that this species: (1) possesses the capacity for social learning of vocalizations (experimental evidence in the form of a captive subject that reproduces human speech and other anthropogenic noises); and (2) exhibits significant large-scale, population-level variation in its vocalizations (cross-island playback experiments, with analyses controlling for a substantial set of potentially confounding variables). In combination, this provides strong evidence for the existence of 'culture' in these birds. More specifically, our findings reveal that the species exhibits sufficient social learning mechanisms, and within-population structuring, to generate and perpetuate cultural variation in at least one behavioural domain. This is a critical first step towards demonstrating cultural transmission in other behaviours, including tool manufacture and tool use, opening the door for the simultaneous investigation of vocal and material culture in a nonhuman species. © 2010 The Linnean Society of London.