London - Monkey see, monkey do sums up more than human behaviour, according to researchers.
They have overturned the long-held belief that learning through imitation is restricted to people - by working with monkeys.
And they found primates pick up the basics just like human children - by copying others.
A new study shows monkeys are able to discover new techniques for obtaining food by mimicking the behaviour of other members of their group.
Not only that, but the same techniques then spread to other group members in the same way in a domino effect.
Research at the University of St Andrews led by Professor Andrew Whiten and Dr Erica van de Waal finally provides scientific underpinning for the old adage ‘monkey see, monkey do’.
By observing how young vervet monkeys learn, they were able to prove the importance of bodily imitation for spreading new techniques - an ability that has been in doubt for non-human species.
It means the skills of monkeys, like human children, are shaped by copying others and in this way they bond as members of their cultural group.
Professor Whiten, Wardlaw professor in the university’s school of psychology and neuroscience, said ‘Our research is revealing that primates other than humans share some of our own reliance on doing as others do in our group.’
During the study, Professor Whiten and Dr Van de Waal, both members of the Scottish Primate Research Group, studied four groups of monkeys who were living in sanctuaries in South Africa where their behaviour could be closely monitored.
Each group was offered an ‘artificial fruit’ with a lid which could be popped-off to reveal a treat inside.
The treat containers were nicknamed ‘aethipops’ after the species’ scientific name, Chlorocebus aethiops, says a report in the science journal PLOS One.
The researchers found that the most common way monkeys found to open an aethipop was to hold it in one hand and use their mouth to pull the top off.
However, in one group an adult female, named ‘Finger’, held the aethipop in one hand and then used her other hand to pop the top off.
The researchers subsequently found that Finger’s more unusual technique spread among members of her group.
They then observed a juvenile in another group, ‘Mike’, discovering a third opening technique - by pulling the ropes attached to the two parts of the aethipop, so it popped open like a Christmas cracker.
Soon after this discovery an adult male used the same technique, which then spread to the rest of Mike’s group.
Dr van de Waal said ‘These results reinforce some of our earlier findings that for these monkeys, adults are the typically preferred models to learn from.’ They say the discovery of the way in which ‘mouth’ and ‘hand’ techniques spread in different groups where an older monkey typically took the lead proves that learning is largely driven by copying.
It suggests that the monkeys’ social learning abilities could provide a basis for simple cultural inheritance in these animals, said Prof Whiten.
‘Now the challenge is to extend these studies to wild vervet monkeys’ he added, ‘and I’m glad to say that project is already well under way.’ - Daily Mail