New evidence of culture in wild chimpanzees

Oct 22, 2009
A chimpanzee

A new study of chimpanzees living in the wild adds to evidence that our closest primate relatives have cultural differences, too. The study, reported online on October 22nd in Current Biology shows that neighboring chimpanzee populations in Uganda use different tools to solve a novel problem: extracting honey trapped within a fallen log.

Kibale Forest use sticks to get at the honey, whereas Budongo Forest chimpanzees rely on leaf sponges—absorbent wedges that they make out of chewed leaves.

"The most reasonable explanation for this difference in tool use was that chimpanzees resorted to preexisting cultural knowledge in trying to solve the novel task," said Klaus Zuberbühler of the University of St Andrews in Scotland. "Culture, in other words, helped them in dealing with a novel problem."

"Culture" in this sense refers to a population-specific set of behaviors acquired through social learning, such as imitation, Zuberbühler explained. That's in contrast to an animal or human learning something on his or her own through trial and error, without taking into account what others around them do, or behaviors that are "hard-wired" and require no learning at all.

Behavioral differences among animal populations have been taken as evidence of culture, the researchers said, but it's a notion that has remained controversial. Some think that other explanations—differences in the environment or in genetics—seem more likely.

Perhaps the strongest evidence for animal culture has come from studies on wild chimpanzees in Africa, Zuberbühler said. For instance, 15 years of field observation has shown that Kibale chimps habitually use sticks as tools, whereas Budongo chimps never do. Both groups make use of leaf sponges to access water from tree holes.

The question is, are those differences really cultural? That's been a hard question to answer because scientists couldn't rule out all of the possible ecological or genetic explanations for those behavioral differences. Scientists have seen social transmission of behaviors among chimpanzees living in captivity, with good evidence that the chimps can socially learn arbitrary behavior. It still wasn't clear whether those findings were relevant to chimps in the wild.

To help get around earlier limitations in the new study, Zuberbühler and his colleague Thibaud Gruber presented the two well-known chimpanzee groups with something that they hadn't seen before, in this case, honey trapped inside a narrow hole drilled into a log.

"With our experiment we were able to rule out that the observed differences in chimpanzee tool use behavior are the result of genetic differences because we tested members of the same subspecies," Zuberbühler said. They also ruled out habitat influences by exposing the chimps to the same unfamiliar problem.

Zuberbühler said that they were surprised by how quickly the animals found their respective solutions. "The cultural differences, in other words, must be deeply entrenched in their minds," he said.

Source: Cell Press (news : web)

Explore further: Rare new species of plant: Stachys caroliniana

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Gesturing observed in wild chimpanzees

Mar 22, 2006

It was once thought only humans gestured to direct another person's attention, but such "referential" gesturing has now been observed in wild chimpanzees.

Study: Chimps don't care about friends

Oct 26, 2005

University of California-Los Angeles scientists say helping others is apparently a uniquely human habit -- or, at least, not a habit shared by chimpanzees.

Gene study shows three distinct groups of chimpanzees

Apr 20, 2007

The largest study to date of genetic variation among chimpanzees has found that the traditional, geography-based sorting of chimps into three populations—western, central and eastern—is underpinned by significant ...

Recommended for you

Rare new species of plant: Stachys caroliniana

Nov 21, 2014

The exclusive club of explorers who have discovered a rare new species of life isn't restricted to globetrotters traveling to remote locations like the Amazon rainforests, Madagascar or the woodlands of the ...

Mysterious glowworm found in Peruvian rainforest

Nov 21, 2014

(Phys.org) —Wildlife photographer Jeff Cremer has discovered what appears to be a new type of bioluminescent larvae. He told members of the press recently that he was walking near a camp in the Peruvian ...

The unknown crocodiles

Nov 21, 2014

Just a few years ago, crocodilians – crocodiles, alligators and their less-known relatives – were mostly thought of as slow, lazy, and outright stupid animals. You may have thought something like that ...

User comments : 1

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

ArtflDgr
not rated yet Oct 23, 2009
Does this mean that the marxists will have to destroy their culture so that they too can progress into utopia?

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.