From Cognition to Culture: behavioural toolkits for a changing world

When innovations arise in human societies, they can spread rapidly through social networks to form new cultural traits––this capacity for innovation and culture is thought to be vitally important in our success. But does culture help shape the behavioural repertoire of other species? If so, has it been a similarly important determinant of behavioural flexibility? I have sought to investigate these questions by being innovative myself, using methods ranging from automated tracking to citizen science.

Using a combination of controlled experiments and landscape-level observations on wild birds, my research demonstrates: (i) how innovations can spread through social networks to establish new traditions, revealing socio-cognitive factors influencing emergent population-level patterns; (ii) that cultural traits can be inherited and refined over generations, exhibiting ‘cultural evolution’; and (iii) how such mechanisms can facilitate behavioural flexibility to anthropogenic change. My body of work highlights how the learnt experience of other individuals can have profound implications for how animals learn about and exploit their environments. Finally, I outline how these findings have set the foundations for my proposed research programme into the cognitive ecology of parrots, that explores the evolutionary and ecological implications of the complex interactions between culture, cognition, demography and the environment.