Why animal teachers are so rare—and remarkable

Biologists have a definition for teaching that very few animals actually meet, such as orcas and meerkats. Here are a few more from the head of the class.

Animals do all kinds of amazing things—and how they learn do to them has long intrigued scientists.

Some knowledge is inherited: Monarch butterflies, for instance, migrate from Mexico to Canada using a roadmap in their genes. Other species mimic skills and behaviors, like a gray wolf cub observing its pack hunt an elk. And still others learn how to survive via trial and error, such as the New Caledonian crows that figured out dropping pebbles into a pitcher raises its water level.

But among non-humans, the true teacher is a rare breed, with only a handful of species, such as some birds, primates, and insects, making the grade.

For a long time, “there was a real resistance to believe that animals teach, because it really is one of the hallmarks of humanity that makes us special,” says Lisa Rapaport, a behavioral ecologist at Clemson University.

Biologists also have created a specific definition of what constitutes an animal teacher: They must change their behavior in front of a studentwith no immediate benefit to themselves, and the student must show that they’ve gained knowledge or skills, says Rapaport.

Here are notable animal teachers who make sure school is always in session.

When your food bites back

Meerkats of sub-Saharan Africa live in social “mobs” of up to 30 animals, in which hands-on instruction is part of the job for parents and other adult helpers who collaboratively teach youngsters.

Various species of scorpions are prominent on the meerkat menu, but their deadly sting means they require careful handling. That’s why, at first, parents deliver the arachnids dead to their newborns. As the pups grow, meerkat teachers make their lunch lessons gradually more difficult, such as removing the stingers from live scorpions to render them harmless and letting their young practice dispatching them.

As pups gain skills and confidence handling the scorpions, their teachers bring them gradually more able-bodied scorpions until the pupils have learned to safely remove the stinger and kill prey for themselves. (See how meerkats defend their mobs against predators.)

Though adult meerkats dedicate time to teaching that could be spent on other activities, it works to their advantage. Since many meerkats in a mob are closely related, keeping more of the group safe and alive perpetuates the family genes.

Music lessons 

Taking early learning to the extreme, these Australian birds begin teaching their young before birth. The mother superb fairy-wren sings to her eggs as often as 30 times per hour, exposing the embryos to a secret musical passcode that’s unique to each female. Once out in the world, the hatchlings will use the sound to ask for food from mom and dad, who also learns the tune. 

In one study, Sonia Kleindorfer, a biologist at Flinders University in Adelaide, and colleagues swapped eggs between nests of wild birds and found that hatchlings produced the call of the foster mother who sang to them, showing that the young don’t have a genetic understanding of the calls. (Read how a bird uses a tool to make music.)

There’s a good reason for these singing lessons: Cuckoos often lay eggs in the wrens’ nests so that they can pass off the burden of incubating and raising their own young, a phenomenon called brood parasitism. But cuckoo parents do this too late for their embryos to learn the call, so caring only for young that know the call ensures wrens don’t waste valuable time and food on feeding imposters. 

Showing a friend the way

When a rock ant finds a new food source or nest site, it leads another ant there with a technique called tandem running. The knowledgeable ant guides the novice along the route, pausing along the way so that the student can memorize each landmark. The teacher relies on feedback from the pupil, which affirms when each lesson is learned; an antenna tap lets the teacher know it’s time to move on.

“The teaching ant gets another individual into the process of agreeing on a much better nest site. This will benefit all of the ants in the colony and help them pass their genes more abundantly into the next generation,” says Nigel Franks, emeritus professor of biology at the University of Bristol in the U.K., who co-authored a study in 2006 documenting the behavior—the first published evidence of a non-human animal teaching another.

Franks is currently experimenting with robot teachers to learn which aspects of ant education are the most crucial for success.

Risky water maneuvers

Depending on where they live, killer whales, or orcas, eat very different prey. In Norway, orcas work together to round up schools of herring into dense clusters, then stun the fish with their tails before feasting. In Antarctica, they team up to wash Weddell seals off the ice and into waiting jaws. Scientists believe that in some of these unique situations, parents teach their young to catch prey.

Off Patagonia, for instance, some orcas hunt sea lion pups at the shoreline by intentionally beaching themselves. Adults show the young how to perform this dangerous maneuver well before they even begin hunting, helping to push their students back into the water when needed. (Watch a video of this amazing beach-hunting behavior.)

In Alaska waters, orcas have been observed training their young to capture prey in stages, first stunning seabirds with their flukes so that the young can get the hang of handling them and practice their own slapping technique.

These lessons are not only examples of teaching, but also culture, which occurs when a group accumulates social knowledge and passes it on to the next generation, National Geographic Explorer and wildlife photographer Brian Skerry has said.

“They are not only teaching their offspring the skills that they will need to survive, but they're teaching them their ancestral traditions, the things that matter to them.”

Foraging master class

Golden lion tamarins of Brazil’s Atlantic Forest must take a master class in foraging that features over 150 different kinds of fruits, insects, tree frogs, lizards, and other prey.

“If you’re a young kid in the forest, where in the heck do you stick your hand to actually find something without being bitten or stung?” says Rapaport, who has studied teaching and learning among tamarins.

That’s why adults use a “come and get it” call that initially attracts young for food handouts, then introduces them to progressively more difficult foraging situations, from recognizing a type of fruit to digging into a tree hole for prey.

“During the period where adults were doing this behavior, the foraging success for prey for kids just skyrocketed, so there’s circumstantial evidence that it was working,” Rapaport says.

Adults were also more likely to offer new foods to their young, she says. “That indicated to me that the adults were paying attention to what the kids did and did not know.”

Rapaport also observed the adults performing what she believes is an incredible trait in non-human teachers: Focusing their energy on those who needed it most. 

“We didn’t have the methodology to say unequivocally that they reserved teaching for kids who were slow learners, but that was my impression,” she notes. “I’d love for someone to really look at that in a careful way."

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