Community Research and Development Information Service - CORDIS

How chimpanzees learn

A research project in Uganda has studied a chimpanzee community to see how their environment and society is related to learning behaviour.
How chimpanzees learn
Studying community-specific behaviour patterns in chimpanzees is an important way for scientists to understand the evolution of human behaviour. Although it has been long assumed, there is no proof that cultural behaviour is learned socially in chimpanzees.

The EU-funded CHIMPCULT (Testing the cultural hypothesis in wild chimpanzees through the use of tool use and playback field experiments) project aimed to use simple field experiments to understand whether behaviour is learned individually or socially.

The study introduced a 'honey-trap' experiment to a chimpanzee community in the Sonso area of Budongo Forest, Uganda. This experiment encouraged chimps to learn to use a stick to extract honey from a log.

In 75 trials with 18 chimpanzees, only 2 used a stick to get at the honey, independent of one another. This confirmed that the experiment can be used to study learning in chimps, but in this community the behaviour was not learned. There was, however, some interest from younger chimps, suggesting that the behaviour may be learned over time.

CHIMPCULT also used modelling to study the spread of another novel behaviour in the Sonso community. The models showed that this group learned socially this behaviour. Finally, a last study showed that chimpanzees are more open to innovation if they have experienced ecological stress.

These findings support recent theories about social learning and innovation in primates, but further research is required to understand these processes more fully.

Related information


Chimpanzees, learning, cultural behaviour, CHIMPCULT, field experiments, ecological influence
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