Competition and generalization impede cultural formation in wild jackdaws

Proc Biol Sci. 2023 Aug 9;290(2004):20230705. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2023.0705. Epub 2023 Aug 9.


Animal cultures have now been demonstrated experimentally in diverse taxa from flies to great apes. However, experiments commonly use tasks with unrestricted access to equal pay-offs and innovations seeded by demonstrators who are trained to exhibit strong preferences. Such conditions may not reflect those typically found in nature. For example, the learned preferences of natural innovators may be weaker, while competition for depleting resources can favour switching between strategies and generalizing from past experience. Here we show that in experiments where wild jackdaws (Corvus monedula) can freely discover depleting supplies of novel foods, generalization has a powerful effect on learning, allowing individuals to exploit multiple new opportunities through both social and individual learning. Further, in contrast to studies with trained demonstrators, individuals that were first to innovate showed weak preferences. As a consequence, many individuals ate all available novel foods, displaying no strong preference and no group-level culture emerged. Individuals followed a 'learn from adults' strategy, but other demographic factors played a minimal role in shaping social transmission. These results demonstrate the importance of generalization in allowing animals to exploit new opportunities and highlight how natural competitive dynamics may impede the formation of culture.

Keywords: cognition; competition; culture; generalization; social learning; social network.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Behavior, Animal*
  • Crows*
  • Food