Christmas was weird this year. The tree went up late for a variety of reasons and, for the first time, I found myself contemplating whether to bother with one or not. Always a huge fan of Christmas, I think I value as much the reaffirmation of family ties that occurs as anything else.

I was in high school when my grandparents horrified me by deciding not to have a tree of their own. When they were out of the house for an afternoon, I brought in a tree, decorated it and awaited their return. Their lack of enthusiasm for my efforts confused me. Now I might understand.

Our tree was always a family deal. We went together to cut it, sat with the big box of decorations and talked about each one as it went on the tree. Some were family heirlooms, some were hideous second-grade kid projects, some were gifts from folks we held dear, there was even an oriole’s nest in case we could not find a tree with a lucky bird’s nest in it. We even had a partridge siting on a pear — until it was eaten by a beagle puppy. It was a big deal for each kid to put on the ornament engraved with their name that we got on the year of their birth. There was, of course, the raucous tinsel-tossing and for a number of years in a row, we got to do it twice after the Christmas tree toppled. Taking it down on New Year’s Day gave us a chance to talk about the decorations again.

This year the tree trimming was a solo event. Christmas morning we made breakfast for ourselves and did our gifts, but everyone else’s are still sitting under the tree. They will stop by when it is convenient, probably after the tree is down. This left us discussing whether or not to do a tree again. At first, I sided with my grandparents. Maybe just candles, which seem popular with winter celebrations or perhaps a Festivus pole. If we want a tree, we can go to someone’s house and see theirs. Let the kids pick anything they want from the big decoration box and send the rest to the Salvation Army.

Then Dr. Wifey pointed out my antipathy for “modern” tree decorating technique — all one-color lights, sometimes all identical ornaments — makes me crazy. I start frothing about tradition and how wonderful our eclectic trees are. Embracing the concept of Christmas for just the two of us is going take some time. Perhaps a look to the natural world is suggested.

History and tradition are not something we typically think of in the wild world, but actually, it may be far more significant than previously realized. There have been a number of observations of populations of animals, particularly birds, that seemed to have developed feeding strategies that were passed on to succeeding generations. Classic was a group of crows. One individual learned to fashion a piece of stick with a hooked end and use this to draw grubs out of dead trees. It took only about two generations before the entire flock was exhibiting this behavior.

When young birds, usually males, migrated to another flock, the behavior spread through these flocks as well. Other bird studies have noted the sharing of learned behavior in a number of jungle fruit-eating species. In order to counteract the toxins in many of the fruit, the birds consume mineral-bearing clays. Incidentally, so do people and that practice spread quite widely, especially on this continent, before the government created health departments. Nowadays we take vitamin pills.

For the birds, getting the mineral salts free from the banks where they are found can be a challenge. Some species learned to fashion sticks into picks to scrape material loose. The interesting thing here is that it is possible that different species have learned from each other and sometimes even reuse picks fashioned by another bird.

However, one of the best examples of cultural transmission in an animal species is happening right now and fairly close to our part of the world. North Atlantic coastal areas have experienced a huge ecological change. We “saved” the seals and pinniped populations exploded. Harp seals (the cute white babies) have gone from a stable population of 1.8 million animals before the hunt was stopped to over 10 million, increasing geometrically each year.

Since marine mammal treaties included all species, others have experienced similar increases. Given that an adult harp seal eats about seven pounds of fish a day, the impact on fish species has been huge, with some of the more common northern species like cod, capelin and herring experiencing catastrophic crashes. This caused a huge negative impact on whales.

Humpback whales depended on vast schools of herring and capelin in the rich northern waters to replenish their blubber stores for breeding and gestation when they do not feed for long periods. Humpback whales developed a fishing technique, which was learned behavior passed on to succeeding generations. Called a “bubble net,” it involved diving beneath a school then swimming in a circular pattern while releasing a string of bubbles. This corralled the school and drove it toward the surface. The whale or whales then swam straight up through the center of the bubble net and engulfed huge quantities at a time.

When the traditional fish disappeared, another species called the sand lance, which the seals do not prefer, increased dramatically. Unfortunately for the whales, sand lance do not swim up in the water column very far. Then one enterprising whale was observed to have solved the problem. Swimming in a circle, this male repeatedly and violently smacked his tail on the water surface before rapidly diving and beginning a bubble net. This behavior, named lobtail feeding, causes the sand lance to rise up away from the sea floor and thus become vulnerable to the bubble net.

This was interesting enough by itself but far more amazing that in the past decade the behavior has been learned by other individuals. More than 650 individual whales have been observed lobtail feeding. Even better, individuals have begun cooperating with each other to gather up even larger groups of sand lance. This is one of the best documented examples of learned behavior being shared by mammals and it has happened in our lifetime.

I suppose if the whales can adapt to changing circumstance by creating a new tradition, I can probably manage. Who knows, I might even get an artificial, pre-decorated tree next year.

Bob Henke writes a weekly outdoors column for The Post-Star.


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