Chimps vs. Humans

Scientists have caught wild chimpanzees transmitting knowledge to one another, bolstering the long-held claim that the primates may have “cultures” that explains the ways in which human cultures spread throughout populations. The chimps, in the Budongo Forest of Uganda, were captured on film using clumps of moss as tools to soak up and drink water. As more experienced apes engaged in “moss-sponging,” the others looked on and later imitated the behavior to quench their own thirsts. The learned behavior then spread throughout the community. “The chimpanzees just decided to display this novel behavior right in front of us,” Thibaud Gruber, a primatologist from the University of Neuchâtel in Switzerland, “and we only needed our camcorders to capture the scenes.”

Gruber and his fellow-researchers presented the video in a PLOS Biology study published. The researchers also performed social network analysis on the spread of “moss-sponging,” and a related behavior they called “leaf-sponge re-use,” through the community, concluding that the chimps were transmitting the group-specific behaviors via social learning. “Basically, if you saw it done, you learned how to do it, and if you didn’t you didn’t. It was just this wonderfully clear example of social learning that no-one had in the wild before.”

This sort of cultural learning behavior had been observed in captive chimps, but Hobaiter’s footage establishes the presence of social learning in at least one population of wild chimpanzees. “We know from captivity that they are more than capable,” Susanne Schultz, a biologist at the University of Manchester in the U.K. who was not involved with the study. “But there are so few studies that can demonstrate its utility in the wild, and for this reason this paper is a big step forward.”

“With respect to humans, our findings strongly support the idea that the last common ancestors of chimps and humans could learn cultural behaviors from each other, in a similar way,” Gruber said.


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