Socially slick: Monkeys and more show human-style group adaption say researchers

Research with monkeys and whales suggests that it's not only humans who mimic local behaviors when in new groups, with "cultural transmission" adaptation observed in more species than previously believed. The new discovery, by researchers at the University of St Andrews in Scotland, tracked the impact of learned group behaviors on new members to the group, and found that vervet monkeys, among other species, were quick to copy what was perceived as the group norm.

For instance, groups of monkeys were trained over the course of three months to eat corn dyed one color – pink or blue – and avoid the other, using an unpleasantly bitter taste derived from aloe leaves. When a young male monkey was switched between groups, it usually changed immediately to prefer the color of the new collective, rather than whatever it had been eating in preference before.

"The copying behaviour of both the new, naïve infants and the migrating males reveals the potency and importance of social learning in these wild primates, extending even to the conformity we know so well in humans" Erica van de Waal, study co-author, University of St Andrews

The monkey paper, published in Science this week, is the counterpart to a second study, by a different team of researchers at the university. Marine biologists, they examined patterns in bubble-feeding – where whales use clouds of bubbles to confuse and herd schools of fish – and discovered nearly 90-percent of those whales using a new variant of the technique had apparently learned it from close association with an existing user. Initially observed in just one whale, the newer variant spread to 37-percent of the population, a study of a 27-year behavior database revealed.

"Their back-to-back publication marks the moment where we can finally move on to discuss the implications of culture in animals" University of Zurich primatologist Carel van Schaik told ScienceNOW, describing the monkey behaviors a particularly "big surprise."

Nonetheless, while the behavior studies indicate animal activity is more than just self-determined, the results fall short of suggesting that human-style cultural transmission is not unique to us. Humans are able to specifically copy each others' behaviors, something the pattern mimicking of monkeys and whales isn't on a par with.