News Release: Research , Yerkes

Nov. 18,  2009

Yerkes Researchers Discover Capuchin Monkeys Can Sustain Group-Wide Social Traditions

Study shows capuchins have the ability to imitate others, a basis for the transmission of cultural behavior

Researchers at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center, Emory University, and the University of St. Andrews, Scotland, have discovered capuchin monkeys have a capacity for social learning that allows them to create group-wide social traditions. The study, available in the current online edition of Public Library of Science One (PLoS One), is the first study to experimentally demonstrate the spreading of two different traditions in different groups of monkeys and suggests certain behaviors are learned and spread socially, similar to the way humans and chimpanzees learn social customs.

For the study, the alpha male of each of two groups of capuchins was trained to open an artificial foraging device in a different way, using either a slide or lift action, then reunited with his group. In each group, a majority of monkeys subsequently mastered the task. Although a majority of the monkeys also discovered the alternative method, each monkey that successfully opened the device continuously imitated and adopted the technique seeded by the alpha male of the group as the primary method.

"Being able to understand and learn about another's actions and then adopt that behavior is how a tradition is formed, says lead Yerkes researcher Marietta Dindo, PhD. We previously assumed cultural transmission of behaviors is unique to humans and their closest genetic relatives, chimpanzees."

"There has been suggestive evidence in the past for traditions in monkeys, but without an experiment, it's difficult to be sure the behavior is really based on social learning, that it is learned from others and not learned for oneself. This study is the first to set up an experiment on this, where the results must be the result of social learning," says co-author Andrew Whiten, PhD, University of St. Andrews.

"Our findings suggest the underlying mechanism that supports culture may be based on a very simple principle of acting like and identifying with those around you," continues Dindo. Dindo trained under world-renowned primatologist Frans de Waal, PhD, who credits the study as a promising first step to take cultural studies from apes to monkeys. de Waal is director of the Living Links Center at the Yerkes Research Center.

For nearly eight decades, the Yerkes National Primate Research Center, Emory University, has been dedicated to conducting essential basic science and translational research to advance scientific understanding and to improve the health and well-being of humans and nonhuman primates. Today, the center, as one of only eight National-Institutes of Health-funded national primate research centers, provides leadership, training and resources to foster scientific creativity, collaboration and discoveries. Yerkes-based research is grounded in scientific integrity, expert knowledge, respect for colleagues, an open exchange of ideas and compassionate quality animal care.

Within the fields of microbiology, immunology, neuroscience and psychobiology, the center's research programs are seeking ways to: develop vaccines for infectious and noninfectious diseases, such as AIDS and Alzheimer's disease; treat cocaine addiction; interpret brain activity through imaging; increase understanding of progressive illnesses such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's; unlock the secrets of memory; determine behavioral effects of hormone replacement therapy; address vision disorders; and advance knowledge about the evolutionary links between biology and behavior.

The goal of the Living Links Center at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center is to view great apes as a window to the human past by studying their behavior, cognition, neuroanatomy, genes and reproduction in a noninvasive manor. Another goal is to educate the public about apes and to help guarantee their continued existence in the wild.


The Robert W. Woodruff Health Sciences Center of Emory University is an academic health science and service center focused on missions of teaching, research, health care and public service.

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Twitter: @emoryhealthsci

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