Male Monkeys Conform Behavior To Local Customs
April 26, 2013

Monkey See, Monkey Do: Male Monkeys Are Conformists

Michael Harper for — Your Universe Online

Human beings are sophisticated creatures equipped with opposable thumbs and higher brain functions than any of our fellow creatures. Yet as Mike Snow sings, “I´m still an animal,” and many human behaviors and tendencies have been observed in the animal kingdom as well. For instance, our herd-like mentality to follow the crowd and do what those around us are doing has been observed in wild vervet monkeys living in South Africa.

Professor Andrew Whiten, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of St Andrews, and his team discovered these monkeys copied the behavior in others, a phenomenon he calls “cultural transmission.” Interestingly, Whiten and his team, composed of Dr. Erica van de Waal of the University of St. Andrews and Christèle Borgeaud of the University of Neuchâtel, observed male vervet monkeys were much more likely to conform to local behavior, even if it didn´t make sense to them. This, says professor Whiten, could explain why human travelers are often keen on finding local haunts in new cities.

“As the saying goes, ℠when in Rome, do as the Romans do´. It may make sense in nature, where the knowledge of the locals is often the best guide to what are the optimal behaviors in their environment,” explained Whiten.

Whiten and his team originally planned to measure how strongly infant monkeys are influenced by their mothers. What they found instead was the power of influence goes beyond the familial bonds and spreads into cultural bonds as well.

To conduct this study, the team sorted wild vervet monkeys into two groups. Each group was presented with two boxes of maize corn. The corn in one box was dyed blue, the other pink. In each group, the researchers made one box of corn repulsive, teaching them to eat only one color of corn and avoid the other. As a new generation of wild vervet monkeys were born, the researchers stopped offering them the repulsive corn and began offering two boxes full of completely edible corn in blue or pink. The adults continued to eat only the color of corn which they were trained and even taught their youngsters to only eat the corn of a certain color. According to the research, every infant monkey ate only the color of corn the adults trained them to eat.

However, the researchers noticed as the males in these two groups began to cross into other groups, they began to eat the colored corn of the other group. For example, as a male monkey from Group A who was trained to eat only blue corn began to interact with females from Group B, he would begin to eat the pink corn even though he had been trained to find it unpalatable. Dr. van de Waal says the males adopt this behavior immediately and begin acting in a way that may not have even made sense to them.

“The willingness of the immigrant males to adopt the local preference of their new groups surprised us all,” said Dr. van de Waal in the press release. “The copying behavior of both the new, naïve infants and the migrating males reveals the potency and importance of social learning in these wild primates, extending even to the conformity we know so well in humans.”

Monkeys aren´t the only copycats in the animal kingdom. As recently as 1980, humpback whales in the Gulf of Maine only caught fish in a certain way, swimming in circles below schools of fish and blowing bubble curtains to trap them. The whales would then swim quickly upward and strike. Then, one whale developed a new spin on this technique, smacking its tail against the water first before diving down to swim in circles and blow bubble curtains.

This method has been named “lobtail feeding” and, according to National Geographic, some 40 percent of all the humpback whales in the Gulf of Maine have now adopted this strategy simply because it has been taught from generation to generation.