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Signs of culture in monkeys and whales

full story and photos: http://www.the-scientist.com//?articles.view/articleNo/35705/title/Behavior-Brief/

Humans aren't the only animals with culture, or the ability to collectively transmit and adopt behaviors among a group. Indeed, some level of cultural transmission and learning has been identified in several other species. But two studies published last month (26 April) in Science provide the strongest evidence yet, showing that vervet monkeys and humpback whales learn new behaviors from each other in much the same way as humans pick up the latest trend.

In the first study, researchers from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland created two distinct "cultures" among a group of more than 100 wild vervet monkeys (Chlorocebus pygerythrus) in South Africa: one set was trained to eat only corn dyed blue; another to eat only pink corn. Several months later, when 27 infants from the group were offered the choice, all but 2 of them chose the color that their mother preferred. In addition, 7 of 10 adult males that had migrated from one set to the other immediately took up the color of their new group. The results suggest that cultural conformity could shape behavior in wild vervet monkeys.

In the second study, a different team from St. Andrews mined observational data on humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) in Massachusetts Bay collected over 27 years to see if lobtail feeding--a technique in which the whales strike the water with their tales, most likely to confuse and herd prey fish together--was spreading, as anecdotes suggested. The researchers found that since 1980, when the feeding behavior was first spotted, it has spread to 37 percent of the population. What's more, almost 90 percent of the whales that adopted the technique appeared to have learned it by copying a nearby whale that was already using the trick.

Carel van Schaik, a primatologist at the University of Zurich in Switzerland, told ScienceNOW that the publication of these two papers "marks the moment where we can finally move on to discuss the implications of culture in animals," rather than debating whether or not cultural transmission occurs in animals.


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