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Potent Social Learning and Conformity Shape a Wild Primate’s Foraging Decisions

Science  26 Apr 2013:
Vol. 340, Issue 6131, pp. 483-485
DOI: 10.1126/science.1232769

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Animal Culture

Cultural transmission of information occurs when individuals learn from others with more experience or when individuals come to accept particular modes of behavior as the local norm. Such information transfer can be expected in highly social or long-lived species where contact and time for learning are maximized and are seen in humans (see the Perspective by de Waal). Using a network-based diffusion analysis on a long-term data set that includes tens of thousands of observations of individual humpback whales, Allen et al. (p. 485) show that an innovative feeding behavior has spread through social transmission since it first emerged in a single individual in 1980. The “lobtail” feeding has passed among associating individuals for more than three decades. Van de Waal et al. (p. 483), on the other hand, used a controlled experimental approach in vervet monkeys to show that individuals learn what to eat from more experienced individuals within their social group. Not only did young animals learn from observing older animals, but immigrating males switched their food preference to that of their new group.

Abstract

Conformity to local behavioral norms reflects the pervading role of culture in human life. Laboratory experiments have begun to suggest a role for conformity in animal social learning, but evidence from the wild remains circumstantial. Here, we show experimentally that wild vervet monkeys will abandon personal foraging preferences in favor of group norms new to them. Groups first learned to avoid the bitter-tasting alternative of two foods. Presentations of these options untreated months later revealed that all new infants naïve to the foods adopted maternal preferences. Males who migrated between groups where the alternative food was eaten switched to the new local norm. Such powerful effects of social learning represent a more potent force than hitherto recognized in shaping group differences among wild animals.

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