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Social Learning in Chimpanzees

By Russell Tenofsky

A new study has shown that chimpanzees can learn to use tools more efficiently by watching others, and this is helping scientists to understand more about how social learning and culture develops in chimpanzees – and in humans, too.

Chimpanzees sit together by a pond. In "Personalities on the Plate," Barbara J. King delves into the emotional and social lives of chimpanzees and other animals.

“Social learning is very important to maintaining a culture,” said researcher Shinya Yamamoto of Kyoto University in Japan. “For example, in humans, we can develop technologies based on previous techniques, and other people can learn the more efficient techniques by accumulating cultural knowledge.”

For the study, nine captive chimpanzees at the Primate Research Institute were provided with juice boxes and straws. The researchers observed the chimpanzees using two distinct methods to drink the juice. Either they “dipped” the straw into the juice, removed the straw, and sucked out the juice through the end, or used the more effective method of “sucking” the juice through the straw directly. Once the “dipping” group observed another individual using the “sucking” method (either another chimpanzee or a human), they all switched to, and stuck with, the more efficient method.

From this, the researchers concluded, “When chimpanzees are dissatisfied with their own technique, they may socially learn an improved technique by closely observing a proficient demonstrator.”

In other words, according to the research team, these results show the basis of chimpanzee culture – one that, like human culture, partially stems from shared and accumulated social learning.

“What is particularly interesting about the chimpanzee tool study finding,” said Dr. Lori Marino, NhRP’s Director of Science, “Is that, up until fairly recently, the lore was that chimpanzees did not learn specific ways of doing things through observation but, instead, just got a general idea from others but then had their own individual way of doing things. So, this tells us something different and provides the psychological scaffolding for cultural imitation.”

Researchers published the study online on Jan. 30 in the journal PLOS ONE.

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