Chimpanzees Learn Food Preparation From One Another, Study Suggests

By Josh Lieberman on December 18, 2013 3:24 PM EST

chimp
Chimpanzees may learn from one another the best way to prepare food. (Photo: Reuters)

Chimpanzees learn how to prepare food from watching their companions' techniques, suggests a new study published in Animal Cognition. Psychologists Bruce Rawlings and Marina Davila-Ross from the University of Portsmouth, in England, found that our closest living relatives seem to socially acquire the skill of "extractive foraging"--opening fruit--from one another. 

In the study, the researchers looked at three groups of chimpanzees rounded up from around Africa. The three groups were given hard-shelled fruit and videotaped as they tried to open the fruit using a variety of techniques. The chimps attempted to open the hard shell of the fruits by banging them together, scraping, peeling, cracking them on the ground, banging them on trees and roots and by biting a chunk from the shells of the fruits to make them easier to peel.

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Each group experimented with these techniques, eventually settling on preferred methods for opening the fruit. Two of the groups "decided" that banging the fruits together to open them was the way to go, while the third group didn't use the method at all, suggesting that the members of each group were learning from one another.    

"[T]he clear differences in the natural way the three chimpanzee groups opened the fruits is most likely the result of social learning, which helps form certain behavior in chimpanzees in a similar way to early human cultures," said Rawlings. "As humans we might learn the best way to crack a nut or how to stone a peach from watching someone else and it appears chimpanzees learn how to handle food in similar ways."

With the chimps coming from different parts of Africa, and with half of them not raised in captivity, Davila-Ross said that the different foraging techniques in each group were unlikely to have resulted from genetic reasons or from the chimps observing humans. By the chimpanzees observing and learning from one another, they were creating a basic level of culture, according to Rawlings. 

"Culture is a hallmark of the human species; we far exceed all other animals in the way we learn skills from within our social communities, particularly within the context of food and cuisine," said Rawlings. "There is still a huge debate about whether humans are the only species capable of cultural traditions, and indeed how and when this capacity evolved."

READ MORE:

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