Scientists have discovered how chimps learn new behaviour

For the first time, scientists have recorded how chimps in the wild pick up new behaviour. The research, which was just published in the journal PLOS Biology, was undertaken by an international team from the University of St Andrews, University of Neuchâtel, Anglia Ruskin University, and Université du Quebec.

Chimpanzees in different communities have different ways of doing things: some use tools while others prefer to work with their hands (late adopters). The researchers knew that each community had its own cultural rules and ideals, but they didn’t know how these were established until they studied Sonso chimps in the Budongo Forest in Uganda and spotted two new behaviours, which meant they were able to see how they were passed on. The chimps started using leaves to drink from in two different ways: making a sponge from leaves and moss, and re-using a leaf-sponge. Sonso chimps have been observed for 20 years but had never been recorded doing either of these things before.

One day, an alpha male chimp made a moss sponge while watched by a dominant female, and then seven more chimps made their own version during the next week, six of whom had seen another chimp do it first. (Another worked out what to do after finding another chimp’s discarded sponge.) The scientists also saw another chimp re-use a leaf-sponge and eight more quickly copied, four of whom had watched another chimp do it first.

The scientists worked out that a chimp seeing another chimp do something for the first time made them 15 times more likely to try it. Their conclusion? The human tendency to pick up trends and social cues from observing others probably dates waaaay back to our hairiest ancestors. They now want to study what happened in our development to make us able to understand and transmit increasingly sophisticated information, like how to order at Starbucks.

Image via Tambako The Jaguar’s Flickr.

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Diane Shipley


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