Cultural transmission is the mean by which individuals modify their behaviour or learn new skills by observing other individuals. Such learning was traditionally viewed as only occurring in humans, but has now been described in many species predominantly non-human primates but also in lower mammals and vertebrates. Rats for instance can learn to avoid poisoned food by observing other rats getting ill or dying from eating the food. In the colourful guppies, popular aquaria fish, a simple form of cultural transmission has been shown to occur during mate choice in females. Thus a female guppy is more likely to select a male, which it has seen was also selected by other females than one that was rejected by other females.

The biologist Lee Dugatkin from the University of Louisville in USA used this system to investigate if cultural transmission is determined by ontogeny. He tested this by raising a group of 15 guppies in different social environments such as in the presence of virgin females and adult males, adult males only, virgin females only or alone. After 35 days the guppies were placed in individual aquaria until they reached maturity. They were then tested on their tendency to copy other females’ mate choice. Dugatkin found that conditions which mimic the natural environments, guppies swimming alone in large schools or together with adults of both sex results in much larger cultural transmission that unnatural environments. A result that may well be applicable to other social animals including humans.

Dugatkin, L. A. (2007). Developmental environment, cultural transmission, and mate choice copying. Naturwissenschaften 94: 651-656.