Chimps learn novel tool use from each other

The spread of the use of two novel tools within a group of chimpanzees has been recorded by researchers. Such findings are amongst the first evidence for a spread of a new culture through a chimp population.

The study, led by Dr Catherine Hobaiter from the University of St Andrews, found that though the population were using tools that are considered universal amongst chimps, there was novel variation in their specifics. Such variation was at first only observed in a few individuals but soon spread throughout the whole group, suggesting social learning played a pivotal role in the spread of this new trick.

The novel tools are modifications of an existing behaviour called leaf sponging in which the chimp folds and chews leaves in their mouth, subsequently using them in water to aid drinking.

The new modifications were characterised as moss-sponging and leaf sponge re-use. The tools were still used to aid drinking, effectively acting as sponges for the chimps to dip into water and suck the liquid out of.

Moss sponging was first observed in a dominant male using moss rather than leaves to make a sponge. This behaviour was quickly adopted by two other individuals who had witnessed the male perform this behaviour.
The research team were interested in whether the social dominance of certain individuals influenced the spread of cultural traits but further studies are required to fully understand this.

Leaf sponge re-use was defined as the apes using existing sponges that had been discarded by another chimp. This novel modification of an existing tool again spread quickly throughout various members of the group.

It appeared in the study that animals who did not directly witness the tool use did not pick up the behaviour, suggesting it was something that was learnt through direct observation.

The findings, published in Plos Biology, conclude that variants of behaviours can be learned within a group, contributing evidence that such a prerequisite of culture began in an ancestor common to both humans and chimpanzee. In future studies, it is hoped that further investigation into the cultural transmission and learning processes will contribute to a clearer understanding of early human culture and evolution.

Read the full story: Social network analysis shows direct evidence for social transmission of tool use in wild chimpanzees

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Amy Moore

Amy is currently studying for a Masters in Science Communication. Follow her on twitter @_Amy_Moore91

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