Scientists have discovered the latest fad in the parrots of Sydney, Australia: lifting garbage lids to get a snack. In a new study this week, they detail the recent emergence and spread of this learned behavior, which they say is a common but not always easy-to-observe example of cultural changes among nonhuman animals.
Lucy Aplin and her team at the Max Planck Institute for Animal Behavior have long been interested in unraveling the social life of animals, with a special focus on birds. His previous research, for example, did is shown that tick birds in the UK can pick up quickly and then pass on a method to solve a puzzle that produces juicy food worms, a learning ability that could explain how these birds massively attacked the milk bottles of an English city a century earlier, opening the lids so they could steal the cream inside.
This time, Aplin and his team have worked with other researchers in Australia to investigate recent sightings of a sulfur-crested cockatoo, a native bird, that burst into Sydney’s rubbish.
“We are very interested in understanding the potential role of the diffusion of innovation as a mechanism of behavioral flexibility in changing environments such as cities, so that when we saw this new innovation in cockatoos, we knew we had to study whether to ‘extended socially. learning, ”he told Gizmodo in an email to Aplin, who runs Max Planck’s Cognitive and Cultural Ecology lab.
His new research, published On Thursday, in the journal Science, he had several different angles. First, they interviewed people from various neighborhoods between 2018 and 2019 about whether they had seen birds being thrown in the trash. Ultimately, they collected more than 300 garbage lids from 44 suburban neighborhoods, most of them multiple parrots. Then they went out and labeled more than 400 cockatoos (with temporary color marking) found in three hot spots so they could observe the behavior themselves.
Of all their work, they determined that before 2018, the lifting of the garbage lid was only occurring in three suburbs. But as this behavior began to spread, they found that it would subtly shift from one place to another, essentially creating local elevation flavors. Birds in a neighborhood could keep the lid on all the time, unlike birds that open the lid completely, for example. There were also clear patterns in who did the uprising, with men accounting for 84% of the attempts. Birds of all ages raised their lids, suggesting that the behavior went through different groups in the cockatoo society, but the most socially dominant males used to be the most successful foragers, perhaps indicating that they had their first dives in the trash.
“Our study adds to the evidence that other animals have culture and shows how new innovations can be extended to populations to lead to new behaviors,” Aplin said.
Learned behaviors among socially expert animals, such as with chimpanzees, have often been documented transmit knowledge about the use of tools. In these observations, there has also been evidence of cultural diversity, with different groups of chimpanzees adopting different variations in tool use. But, according to Aplin, there has been less work on how humans and the environments we manufacture can directly model animal culture, especially up close that way.
“These findings show that new cultures can develop rapidly also in response to human-provided urban opportunities,” he said.
While it’s possible that trash breaks could become the world’s hottest cockroach fashion, the behavior spread less quickly than Aplin and his team thought it would. One possible reason for this delay may not be exactly the easiest trick to learn, as birds can take months to catch. Natural barriers such as forests could prevent their spread to other neighborhoods, as well as the fact that male birds (unlike females) tend to stay close to home. City parrots also tend to migrate less, which could affect their popularity compared to suburbs. And, of course, there are always those humans who get introduced to worry about.
“People are starting to protect the bins as it’s understandable that they want to reduce the mess caused by cockatoos running through them!” Aplin pointed out. “We’re really interested in following this human behavior over time to see what effect it has on the cockatoo’s behavior.”
Whatever happens to these garbage-loving birds, Aplin and his team hope their research can shed more light on how animals can culturally adapt to a changing world, just as humans have for millennia.
“Our capacity for innovation and culture is the secret of our success, as it allows us to live in many different environments and adapt to many new situations. This work shows that this ability is not entirely limited to humans, as some other animals have the ability to adapt quickly to behavior, ”he said. “Anthropogenic change is rapid and growing; understanding these behavioral responses to new environments is vital if we are to understand when and how animals will cope with these changes.”