It turns out, humans may not be the only ancestral story tellers in the animal kingdom. Mothers across many species have much more in common than we previously thought, especially when it comes to cultural education. As in almost all species, mothers offer their offspring nourishment, comfort, and protection but in order to successfully survive in the wild offspring must also learn a lineage of cultural knowledge. This cultural knowledge is crucial to biodiversity and is generally learned from mothers and other elder role models in the population.
Culture is knowledge and skills that are passed socially from individual to individual and generation to generation. Culture is not genetic; it is learned. Socially-learned skills, traditions and dialects that help a species understand how to live and survive on earth are crucial, not only to helping populations survive, but also to recover.
This generational passing-down of survival skills equates to a fourth level of diversity of life on earth that scientists have only recently acknowledged. They’ve previously defined biodiversity as operating at three levels: the diversity of genes within any particular species; the diversity of species in a given place; and the diversity of habitat types such as forests, coral reefs, and so on. The fourth level is that of cultural diversity.
In many species, survival skills must be learned from mothers who learned from their mothers. This forms culture, and is different from species to species. It is also fragile. Before a population declines in numbers to a point where it would be considered endangered, their special cultural knowledge begins disappearing. At that point, recovery of lost populations, through re-wilding or other methods, becomes much more difficult.
For example, Sam Williams’ Macaw Recovery Network in Costa Rica rewilds captivity-hatched fledgling scarlet and great green macaws. But introducing young birds into a complex forest world without the cultural education normally provided by parents or free-living elder role models is risky.
Trying to restore parrot populations is not as easy as training captive or orphaned young to recognize what is food, and then setting them free. “In a cage,” Williams told ecologist and writer Carl Safina for The Guardian, “you can’t train them to know where, when and how to find that food, or about trees with good nest sites.” Only mothers — and in the case of macaws, fathers, too — can do that.
Orca whale mothers have just one calf every five years, and the mortality rate in the first year is extremely high, so mothers have to watch over their young 24/7. For the first month of their lives, the calves don’t sleep, so mothers forgo sleep to stay up with them. Orca young stay with their mothers their entire lives, even after they have offspring of their own, only separating from its mother for a few hours at a time, to forage and mate.
The most socially complex non-humans, orcas live in layered societies of pods, clans and communities. All community members know the members of their constituent pods, and scrupulously avoid contact with members of other communities. All this social organization is learned from elders.
Elder orcas also instruct their young in the learning of important strategic migratory routes. The same is true for various birds, as well as mammals, who learn crucial migration routes and destinations from their elders. Without this instruction from the elder keepers of traditional knowledge, they would not know where to go.
An elephant herd is another complex society, and one that is female-dominated. A female elephant, or matriarch, oversees every herd, which usually consists of five or six related animals. Daughters of the matriarch typically stay with the herd for most, if not all, of their lives, as they are dependent on the herd for food and protection, and reliant on the guidance of their mother.
Female elephants carry their developing young for up to 22 months, longer than any other mammal. For the first two to three years of life, baby elephants are fully dependent on their mother’s milk. After age two, when a calf starts to eat on its own, the mother's milk remains a critical part of its diet. The other female elephants in a herd -- the calf's aunts -- aid its mother in providing protection and caring for the calf, who stays with its mother in the herd for 16 years, almost as long as human young stay with theirs.
In other words, animals are born to be wild. But becoming wild requires an education, and that education can only be provided by a species’ elders, and often only mothers.