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What Do Vervet Monkeys and Humpback Whales Have in Common?

Humpback Whales

Story at-a-glance -

  • Two new studies conducted by researchers in Scotland suggest that vervet monkeys and humpback whales in the wild engage in social learning. In other words, they adopt the habits of others in their social circle.
  • In the vervet study, monkeys – even youngsters – were observed to select specific types of food based on what others in the group preferred.
  • In the whale study, humpbacks learned a special hunting skill when exposed to other whales who also practiced the technique.

By Dr. Becker

Two new studies suggest that both vervet monkeys1 and humpback whales2 in the wild engage in social learning, meaning they copy behaviors and pick up habits from others in their group.

According to cultural evolutionist Peter Richerson of the University of California, Davis, (who was not involved in either study), the ability to accurately imitate the actions of others is a building block of culture. Complex culture evolves as people learn skills from each other.

Vervet Monkeys’ Food Choices Influenced by Peer Pressure

The vervet researchers, led by Andrew Whiten of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, trained four groups of monkeys in a game preserve in South Africa to eat either blue or pink corn and refuse corn of the other color. The researchers accomplished this by soaking one color of corn in a solution the monkeys found distasteful.

A few months later, several of the female vervets had given birth. The researchers presented the groups with the two colors of corn again, but without the distasteful flavor on either color. Most of the adult animals selected the color of corn that tasted good the first time around, and 26 out of 27 baby monkeys also chose that color.

Male adult vervets travel among groups of monkeys, and the researchers observed that nine out of 10 males who changed from pink to blue groups, or blue to pink groups also switched their corn color choice to conform to what the new group preferred.

Humpback Whales Learn New Hunting Technique Through Imitation

In another study conducted by researchers at the University of St. Andrews, it was discovered that humpback whales also learn by imitating group behavior.

Humpbacks typically attract prey by blowing bubbles underwater. But in 1980, a lone whale was observed smacking its tail on the surface of the water prior to blowing bubbles, presumably to attract even more prey. This behavior was dubbed lobtail feeding and it seems over time, more and more whales have adopted the skill.

The new study indicates the more time whales spend around other humpbacks who are skilled at lobtail feeding, the faster they learn the technique.

The humpback researchers used a massive collection of whale sightings from a 27-year project. Whale watchers recorded the date, identity and behavior information of each humpback they encountered, which added up to over 73,000 sightings over almost three decades. The researchers were able to use that information to evaluate social connections among the whales.

According to study author and marine biologist Luke Rendell of the University of St. Andrews, the more lobtail hunters in a humpback’s social circle, the more likely the whale was to develop the skill. The study results suggest that humpback whales, who are known to learn songs from one another, also imitate the hunting behaviors of those in their social circle.

“In this population, you’ve got multiple traditions going on,” says Rendell. He believes this could represent culture in the whales.

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