Tuesday, November 24, 2009

'Monkey see, monkey do' spreads social customs

Capuchin monkeys have a capacity for social learning that allows them to create group-wide social traditions, according to researchers at Emory's Yerkes National Primate Research Center and the University of St. Andrews, Scotland. Their finding, published by the Public Library of Science One (PLoS One), is the first study to experimentally demonstrate the spreading of two different traditions in different groups of monkeys and suggests certain behaviors are learned and spread socially, similar to the way humans and chimpanzees learn social customs.

For the study, the alpha male of each of two groups of capuchins was trained to open an artificial foraging device in a different way, using either a slide or lift action, then reunited with his group. In each group, a majority of monkeys subsequently mastered the task. Although a majority of the monkeys also discovered the alternative method, each monkey that successfully opened the device continuously imitated and adopted the technique seeded by the alpha male of the group as the primary method.

"Being able to understand and learn about another's actions and then adopt that behavior is how a tradition if formed," says lead Yerkes researcher Marietta Dindo.

"We previously assumed cultural transmission of behaviors is unique to humans and their closest genetic relatives, chimpanzees. Our findings suggest the underlying mechanism that supports culture may be based on a very simple principle of acting like and identifying with those around you."

Dindo trained under Emory primatologist Frans de Waal, who credits the study as a promising first step to take cultural studies from apes to monkeys.

Related stories:

Getting a grip on cultural evolution

The biology of shared laughter and emotion

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