The demographic drivers of cultural evolution in bird song: a multilevel study

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The demographic drivers of cultural evolution in bird song: a multilevel study


Recalde, N. M.; Estandia, A.; Keen, S. C.; Cole, E. F.; Sheldon, B. C.


Social learning within communities sometimes leads to behavioural patterns that persist over time, which we know as culture. Examples of culture include learned bird and whale songs, cetacean feeding techniques, and avian and mammalian migratory routes. Shaped by neutral and selective forces, animal cultures evolve dynamically and lead to cultural traditions that differ greatly in their diversity and stability. These cultural traits can influence individual and group survival, population structure, and even inform conservation efforts, underscoring the importance of understanding how other population processes interact with social learning to shape culture. Although the impact of social learning mechanisms and biases has been extensively explored, the role of demographic factors---such as population turnover, immigration, and age structure---on cultural evolution has received theoretical attention but has rarely been subject to empirical investigation in natural populations. Doing so requires very complete trait sampling and detailed individual life history data, which are hard to acquire in combination. To this end, we built a multi-generational dataset containing over 109,000 songs from >400 individuals from a population of Great Tits (Parus major), which we study using a deep metric learning model to re-identify individuals and quantify song similarity. We show that demographic variation at the small spatial scales at which learning takes place has the potential to strongly impact the pace and outcome of animal cultural evolution. For example, age distributions skewed towards older individuals are associated with slower cultural change and increased diversity, while higher local population turnover leads to elevated rates of cultural change. Our analyses support theoretical expectations for a key role of demographic processes resulting from individual behaviour in determining cultural evolution, and emphasize that these processes interact with species-specific factors such as the timing of song acquisition. Implications extend to large-scale cultural dynamics and the formation of dialects or traditions.

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