Einstein Science Reporting for Kids
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23-Jul-2004

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The science of nosy neighbors



Many animals besides humans can transmit information from one generation to the next in ways that do not involve DNA. This movement of non-genetic information is an important part of animal culture. Image Science.
Click here for a high resolution photograph.

Where should a bird search for food? Would a bright-colored fish or dull-colored fish make the best father? Is this scrap suitable food for a Norway rat? Where should an antelope mate?

Creatures sometimes eavesdrop, copy their neighbors or collect information from their peers nearby and use it to answer these kinds of questions.

Animals use this "public information" to help evaluate the world around them and make good decisions, according to a scientific report that describes and reviews the work of many scientists who study animal behavior. This "Review" article appears in the 23 July 2004 issue of the journal Science.

Animals that use public information to help make decisions can save time and energy. For example, European starlings and other birds watch their neighbors as they hunt for hidden food. They use the success or failure of their neighbors to help decide when to move on to a new feeding area and when to stick around. Using public information in this way can sometimes replace trail-and-error activities that can takes lots of energy and effort.



A guppy. When female guppies observe other female guppies choosing dull-colored mates over bright-colored mates, they too are more likely to choose a dull-colored mate. This is an example of animal culture passing from one generation to another in a way that does not involve DNA. Image Science.
Click here for a high resolution photograph.

The scientists say that many other animals besides humans can transmit information from one generation to the next in ways that do not involve DNA. This movement of non-genetic information is an important part of animal culture.

Studying the way animals use public information may help us better understand animal culture and how the cultures of specific animals change over time.

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