[monkeywire] Chimps Can Pass It On Through Generations

Josh Greenman josh.greenman at gmail.com
Wed Aug 30 17:52:09 EDT 2006


Chimps Can Pass It On Through Generations

Transferring knowledge through a chain of generations is a behavior
not exclusive to humans, according to new findings by researchers at
the Yerkes National Primate Research Center of Emory University and
the University of St. Andrews, Scotland. For the first time,
researchers have shown chimpanzees exhibit generational learning
behavior similar to that in humans. Unlike previous findings that
indicated chimpanzees simply conform to the social norms of the group,
this study shows behavior and traditions can be passed along a chain
of individual chimpanzees. These findings, based upon behavioral data
gathered at the Yerkes Field Station in Lawrenceville, Ga., will
publish online in the August 28 early edition of the Proceedings of
the National Academy of Sciences.

Using a research design that simulated transmission over multiple
generations, researchers Victoria Horner, PhD, of the University of
St. Andrews and the Yerkes Research Center, along with Yerkes
researcher Frans B.M. de Waal, PhD, and St. Andrews researcher Andrew
Whiten, PhD, were able to more closely examine how chimpanzees learn
from each other and the potential longevity of their culture. In doing
so, they confirmed that a particular behavior can be transmitted
accurately along a chain of up to six chimpanzees, representing six
simulated generations equaling approximately 90 years of culture in
the wild. A comparative benchmark study with three-year-old human
children, conducted by St. Andrews researcher Emma Flynn, PhD,
revealed similar results, providing further evidence chimpanzees, like
humans, are creatures of culture.

In the study, researchers began by introducing a foraging technique to
two chimpanzees, one each from two separate social groups, to train
them to open a special testing box one of two ways -- either by
sliding or lifting the door -- to reveal fruit inside. Chimpanzees in
a third social group, used as the control group, were allowed to
explore the testing box but were given no instruction or training to
open the testing box. Once each individual animal from the first two
social groups proved successful, another animal from the same social
group was allowed to observe the process before interacting with the
testing box. Once the second animal succeeded, another chimpanzee
would enter and observe the technique, and so on down the chain. In
the two social groups trained to slide or lift the door, the technique
used by the original animal was passed to up to six chimpanzees. The
chimpanzees in the control group were able to discover both methods
through individual exploration, suggesting the exclusive use of a
single technique in the non-control groups was due to behavioral
transmission from a previous animal.

"The chimpanzees in this study continued using only the technique they
observed rather than an alternative method," said Horner. "This
finding is particularly remarkable considering the chimpanzees in the
control group were able to discover both methods through individual
exploration. Clearly, observing one exclusive technique from a
previous chimpanzee was sufficient for transmission of behavior along
multiple cultural generations."

This research may contribute to a better understanding of how
chimpanzees learn complex behaviors in the wild. "By conducting
controlled cultural experiments with captive chimpanzees, we are able
to learn more about wild population-specific behavioral differences,
thought to represent a form of cultural variation," said Horner.
"These findings also show great similarity between human and
chimpanzee behavior, suggesting cultural learning may be rooted deep
within the evolutionary process."

Further studies by researchers at the Yerkes-based Living Links
Center, established in 1997 to facilitate primate studies that shed
light on human behavioral evolution, may expand on these findings by
examining the cognitive mechanisms involved in cultural learning and
the generational transmission of behavior and traditions.

For more than seven decades, the Yerkes National Primate Research
Center of Emory University has been dedicated to advancing scientific
understanding of primate biology, behavior, veterinary care and
conservation, and to improving human health and well-being. Today, the
center, as one of only eight National Institutes of Health-funded
national primate research centers, provides specialized scientific
resources, expertise and training opportunities. Recognized as a
multidisciplinary research institute, the Yerkes Research Center is
making landmark discoveries in the fields of microbiology and
immunology, neuroscience, psychobiology and sensory-motor systems.
Research programs are seeking ways to: develop vaccines for AIDS and
malaria; treat cocaine addiction; interpret brain activity through
imaging; increase understanding of progressive illnesses such as
Parkinson's and Alzheimer's; unlock the secrets of memory; determine
behavioral effects of hormone replacement therapy; address vision
disorders; and advance knowledge about the evolutionary links between
biology and behavior.

>From Emory University

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