[xmca] Chimps make great teachers and students

From: Tony Whitson (twhitson@udel.edu)
Date: Tue Aug 29 2006 - 03:42:54 PDT

I think this is related to a recent thread, although my memory is hazy:

Chimps make great teachers and students
22:00 28 August 2006
NewScientist.com news service
Bob Holmes
Chimpanzees can pass knowledge from one individual to the next with nearly
perfect accuracy through several "generations" of teacher and learner, a new
study shows.

This ability, which has never been demonstrated in chimps before, means that
these apes have one of the key skills needed to create and maintain true
cultural differences among groups.

Researchers have known for many years that different groups of wild chimps
behave differently. However, without controlled experiments it is impossible
to know for certain whether these represent adaptations to subtly different
conditions or different traditions inherited culturally within each group.

Victoria Horner, a primate behaviourist at the University of St Andrews, UK,
and colleagues tested whether chimps are capable of transmitting knowledge
faithfully through a chain of learners.

The researchers devised a box whose door could be opened in either of two
ways, by lifting a flap or sliding it sideways. "Then we basically set up
the telephone game [also known as Chinese whispers] with chimpanzees,"
Horner explains. See footage of the sliding chimps and the lifting chimps in
action (both avi format, 3.2MB and 2.5MB)

Na´ve apprentice
The team trained one chimp to lift the flap to get a food reward, then let a
second chimp watch the first one demonstrate the technique several times.
The "teacher" was then removed and a new na´ve apprentice was brought in to
watch the newly taught chimp, and so on.

A second cultural lineage was started with a chimp trained to slide the door
instead of lifting.

In both lineages, the knowledge was passed down almost perfectly: through
six teacher-pupil iterations, chimps trained by lifters always lifted, and
through five generations sliders always slid.

The researchers observed only a single error, a slider that lifted once out
of 20 trials; its apprentice learned to slide anyway.

The result shows that cultural learning is strong in chimps, says Horner.
"If the chimps weren't learning from each other, we'd expect over a couple
of generations it would degrade to a 50-50 performance. If they weren't very
good at copying, you wouldn't see this almost 100% accuracy."

Journal reference: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (DOI:

Related Articles
When chimps outsmart humans
10 June 2006
Mindless imitation teaches us how to be human
01 April 2006
Chimpanzees show hints of higher human traits
02 March 2006
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
 University of St. Andrews
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