Chimps can learn to solve puzzles by watching each other

Chimpanzees can learn from watching each other (known as social learning) according to international researchers who say the findings suggest that chimps may have the capacity for cultural evolution, previously thought to be uniquely human. The team gave chimps a puzzlebox that required three steps to open and gain a food reward. After three months of trying, 66 chimps split into two groups were unable to figure the puzzle out for themselves. But after training a chimp from each group to open the box and allowing the other chimps to watch them solve the puzzle, 14 of the 66 chimps developed the ability to open the box over three months. A similar study in bees is published in Nature with the same embargo. 

Journal/conference: Nature Human Behaviour

Link to research (DOI): 10.1038/s41562-024-01836-5

Organisation/s: Utrecht University, The Netherlands

Funder: Open access funding provided by Max Planck Society.

Media release

From: Springer Nature

Animal behaviour: Chimpanzees can socially learn a skill they cannot innovate (N&V)

Chimpanzees may learn a new skill from observing each other (known as social learning), a study published this week in Nature Human Behaviour reports. The findings suggest that chimpanzees may have the capacity for cumulative cultural evolution, which has previously been claimed to be a uniquely human characteristic.

Although there is some evidence for culture in chimpanzees, a theory known as the zone of latent solutions (ZLS) hypothesis disputes that these cultures arise through individuals copying know-how from each other. The ZLS hypothesis states that culture in great apes develops when multiple individuals in a group independently re-innovate “cultural” behaviours. Evidence for this comes from observations of captive apes independently developing known cultural behaviours, such as nut-cracking.

Edwin van Leeuwen and colleagues conducted an experiment with 66 sanctuary-dwelling chimpanzees in Zambia, who are housed in two separate groups, to test the ZLS hypothesis. The chimpanzees were given a puzzle box that required three steps to open to gain a food reward: a wooden ball needed to be retrieved from the forest, a drawer in the apparatus needed to be pulled out and kept protruded, and the ball needed to be inserted into the pulled-out drawer. After three months of exposure to the box, the chimpanzees had not developed the necessary skills to open it. The authors then trained one chimpanzee from each group to open the box, and observed whether the other chimpanzees then developed this skill over three months. Across both groups, 14 of the 66 chimpanzees developed the ability to open the box, all of whom had seen another chimpanzee open the box at least 9 times up to 1.5 metres away.

The authors note that aspects of the skills needed to complete the task may differ between individuals and suggest that future work is needed with different techniques to test the range of chimpanzee cognitive and copying abilities.

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