Applying Cultural Evolution

An innovation arms-race between parrots and humans?

Research team

Lucy Aplin, Principal Investigator
Michael Chimento, Post-doctoral Research Associate
Barbara Klump, Collaborator
John Martin, Collaborator

Key information

Full title: Cultural evolution and human-wildlife conflict: modelling a potential innovation arms-race between parrots and people
Host institution: Australian National University
Research location: Australia

Project overview 

Some animals have colonised our cities, living right alongside us. These animals are often very flexible in behaviour, even innovating new behaviours to take advantage of the new opportunities we provide. For example, many animals around the world have learned to raid bins, foraging for discarded food-scraps. In one such case, a large parrot, the sulphur-crested cockatoo, has learned how to flip open the lids of curb-side bins in surburban Sydney, Australia. After it was innovated, we observed the rapid spread of this behaviour across over 44 suburbs. By mapping this spread, we could show that cockatoos were copying the bin-opening behaviour of others and adopting it for themselves, leading to a local “bin-opening culture”. However, this bin-raiding behaviour makes a mess, with birds throwing unwanted rubbish onto the streets. So local residents have responded by inventing various creative solutions to prevent cockatoos from opening bins; from spikes, rocks on the lids, to shoes in the hinges. Incredibly, it seems that cockatoos have begun to work out how to remove some of these, for example pushing rocks off bins before lifting the lid. This has led people to invest in more effective protection.

Cockatoo opening a bin – Photo by Barbara Klump

In this project, we want to explore whether this back-and-forth between local residents and cockatoos could represent an ‘innovation arms-race’. Similar to the ‘space-race’, when nations competed to advance technology, are people driving cockatoos to innovate new ways to access increasingly protected bins, and are cockatoos driving humans to increase protection? And if so, how is this happening – could it be that cockatoo and human cultures are ‘evolving’ over time, adapting to changes in the other? Our project aims to investigate these questions, and potentially describe the first case of an ‘innovation arms-race’ in non-human animals. We hope that our study will help to improve our understanding of how to use knowledge of animal behaviour to better promote our co-existence with urban wildlife.

Project contact

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Lucy Aplin: Website, Twitter