Social Networks Help Monkeys Adapt To New Trends
June 28, 2013

Strong Social Networks Help Monkeys Adopt New Trends

[ Watch the Video: Social Networks Shape Monkey 'Culture' Too ]

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

Monkeys with the strongest social networks tend to be 'trendsetters' and early adopters of the latest foraging trends, according to new research published Thursday in journal Current Biology.

The researchers, led by Andrew Whiten of the University of St. Andrews, made the discovery by combining social network analysis with more conventional social learning experiments. By combining the two, they offer the first demonstration of how social networks may shape the spread of new cultural techniques.

Researchers hope to see the approach adopted in studies of other social animals.

"Our study shows that innovations do not just spread randomly in primate groups but, as in humans, are shaped by the monkeys' social networks," Whiten said.

Whiten and colleagues traced the monkeys' social networks by recording which monkeys spent time together in the vicinity of "artificial fruits" that could be manipulated to extract tempting food rewards.

Complex statistical analysis of the data revealed the monkeys' social networks, with some individuals situated at the center of the network and others more on the outside.

The researchers rated each of the monkeys on their "centrality," or social status in the network, with the highest ratings going to monkeys with the most connections to other well-connected individuals.

The artificial fruits could be opened in two different ways - by either lifting a small hatch on the front or by pivoting it from side to side.

The researchers trained the alpha male in one group of monkeys on the lift technique, while the leader in another group was trained on the pivot method. Both monkeys were then sent back to their groups and observed to see how the two methods would catch on in the two groups.

The results showed more central monkeys with the strongest social ties picked up the new methods more successfully, and were more likely than peripheral monkeys to learn the method demonstrated by their trained alpha leaders.

Whiten said the squirrel monkey is a good species for these studies due to their natural inquisitiveness. They also lead rather intense social lives.

The researchers now hope to extend their studies to focus on the squirrel monkeys in different contexts - while foraging, moving, and resting, for example - and how those contexts might influence the spread of innovations. They suspect they might even find evidence for different monkey subcultures.

"If there are subgroups within the network, then what appear to be mixed behaviors at the group level could in fact be different behaviors for different subgroups-what could be called subcultures," Whiten said.