Chimpanzees Learn To Use A Straw While Watching Other Proficient Demonstrators
January 31, 2013

Chimpanzees Learn To Use A Straw While Watching Other Proficient Demonstrators

[Watch Video: Chimps Learn To Use Straw] [Watch Video: Chimps Use Dipping Technique]

Alan McStravick for - Your Universe Online

Since 1979, there has been a story out there that has taken hold upon the new-age set. Known as the ℠Hundredth Monkey Phenomenon´, the story, while having undergone several iterations, originally was an anecdotal re-telling of observations made by Japanese primatologists.

Lyall Watson, PhD, in his book Lifetide, explained the hundredth monkey phenomenon, thusly:

"I am forced to improvise the details, but as near as I can tell, this is what seems to have happened. In the autumn of that year an unspecified number of monkeys on Koshima were washing sweet potatoes in the sea. . . . Let us say, for argument's sake, that the number was ninety-nine and that at eleven o'clock on a Tuesday morning, one further convert was added to the fold in the usual way. But the addition of the hundredth monkey apparently carried the number across some sort of threshold, pushing it through a kind of critical mass, because by that evening almost everyone was doing it. Not only that, but the habit seems to have jumped natural barriers and to have appeared spontaneously, like glycerine crystals in sealed laboratory jars, in colonies on other islands and on the mainland in a troop at Takasakiyama."

Watson´s contention that a form of elevated consciousness was able to take hold just as soon as that 100th monkey washed his sweet potato in the sea, has long been debunked. Ron Amundson, only 6 years after Watson´s book was published, authored a very critical article of Watson and his seemingly outlandish claim.

While a new study out of Kyoto University and Kent University do not reverse criticisms of Watson´s almost mystical claims with the 100th monkey, it does examine another species of primate, chimpanzees, and how they can learn more efficient ways to use a tool simply by watching what others do.

The study, led by Shinya Yamamoto, and published in this week's issue of the open access journal PLoS ONE, presents the first experimental evidence that chimps, like humans, can watch and learn a group member´s invention of a better technique.

The team, to test their hypothesis, provided each of the chimps in the study with juice boxes and straws. They found one group utilized the straw as a form of dipstick. They would dip the straw and remove it from the box, licking and sucking on the end. The other group, by contrast, learned how to suck the liquid from the box through the straw. While both of these techniques required the identical cognitive and motor skills, the chimps who learned to drink directly from the juice box received considerably more juice with less effort.

Of particular interest to the researchers was the question of whether the first group of chimps, the dipstickers, could learn and adapt to the second method.

Chimps in this first group, after having watched either a human or chimp demonstrate the more efficient “straw-sucking” technique, without exception switched to this method.

Study authors, therefore, concluded, “When chimpanzees are dissatisfied with their own technique, they may socially learn an improved technique by closely observing a proficient demonstrator.”

This team showed how adaptations in behavior can occur out of a necessity, such as determining a more efficient method of a similar task. Watson´s long-debunked theory relied on the reader´s willingness to believe in a form of conscientious elevation, across both time and space, apparently.

But this more scientifically and intellectually honest study, according to the authors, shows their results provide insights into the cognitive basis for the evolution of culture in chimpanzees. They also believe their results suggest ways that culture might evolve in other non-human animals.