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Chimpanzees learn a more efficient tool technique by watching others

Chimpanzees are likely to use a more efficient tool technique after observing others who are employing a better approach, according to new research conducted by Kyoto University, Japan and the University of Kent, UK.

A wild chimpanzee (young male) from Bossou, Guinea, West Africa: Image copyright T.HumleIn a paper published by PLOS ONE on 30 January, researchers presented the first experimental evidence that chimpanzees can watch and learn from a group member’s invention of a better technique in much the same way that humans do.

For the study, the team provided chimpanzees with wall boxes containing juice, accessible via a small hole, and flexible straws to drink with. Among their observations, they noticed how one group of chimpanzees used the straw like a dipstick, dipping and removing it to suck on the end, while others sucked the juice directly through the straw. Although both techniques required similar cognitive and motor skills, drinking through the straw was much more efficient than repeatedly dipping for the juice.

When the ‘dipping’ chimpanzees watched either another chimpanzee or a human demonstrate the more efficient ‘straw-sucking’ technique, all of them switched to using the latter technique.

Dr Tatyana Humle, Lecturer in Conservation and Primate Behaviour at Kent’s Durrell Institute for Conservation and Ecology (DICE), said: ‘Incremental improvement in technology is not unique to human culture; this study provides significant insights into the cognitive basis for the adoption of novel tool-use techniques in chimpanzees. The results also suggest favourable conditions under which material culture could evolve in non-human animals, such as copying another’s technique if dissatisfied with your own.’

‘Basis for cumulative cultural evolution in chimpanzees: social learning of a more efficient tool-use technique’, can be accessed here.


Story published at 3:54pm 8 February 2013

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Last Updated: 23/05/2013