On Life, love and Politics

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Monkeys learn more from females March 19, 2010



Vervet monkey

Monkeys pay more attention to females than to males, according to research.

Scientists studying wild vervet monkeys in South Africa found that the animals were better able to learn a task when it was demonstrated by a female.

The team compared animals' responses to demonstrations of a simple box-opening task, which was demonstrated either by a dominant male or female monkey.

Their findings are described in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Biologist Erica van de Waal, from the University of Neuchatel in Switzerland, and her team, studied six neighbouring groups of wild vervet monkeys in South Africa's Loskop Dam Nature Reserve.

They gave the monkeys boxes containing fruit, which had doors on each differently coloured end.

During an initial demonstration, the researchers blocked one of the doors, so there was only one correct way to solve the box-opening puzzle and access the fruit reward.

Vervet monkey opening fruit box

For three of the groups, a dominant male monkey was selected as a "model" to demonstrate the task and for the other three a dominant female was chosen.

"The models learned by trial and error how to open the box," explained Ms van de Waal. "Once they understood how to pull or slide the door open we let them perform 25 demonstrations."

After this "demonstration phase", the other monkeys were far more likely to try – and to succeed in – opening the fruit box if their demonstrator was a female.

"We found that bystanders paid significantly more attention to female than male models," said Ms van de Waal.

"[This] seemed to be the only factor influencing this social learning."

Social bonds

Watching and learning from dominant females could be advantageous for the monkeys. While males tend to wander and find mates in other groups, females usually return to the group in which they were born.

"Females are core group members with higher social status than males, and more knowledge about food resources in the home range," explained Ms van de Waal.

She said the results revealed valuable insights into "the evolution of traditions and culture in species living in stable groups, including humans".

"To our knowledge, [this is] the first experimental field evidence for social learning in primates," she added.

"Experiments on social learning have been conducted mainly in captivity and it is time to know if the results are the same on wild animals."


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