We humans learn (whether we know it or not) by imitating each other. We watch cooking shows so we can make that one dish “just like” some celebrity chef. A math teacher solves a problem on the board; students are expected to follow along and write down the numbers, variables and everything else she’s written and then use the method she’s taught them to solve different problems. Most children learn to talk by repeating the sounds they hear everybody else using.
Monkeys and humpback whales also learn by imitating one another, as two recent studies in the journal Science show. It’s a further sign of how they learn socially via imitating and that certain skills are not simply “hard-wired” into them.
Most Monkeys Do What the Locals Do
Erica van de Waal, a primate psychologist at the University of St Andrews, U.K., found that wild vervet monkeys in South Africa follow the principle of “when in Rome, do as the Romans do.” She and her colleagues trained one group of monkeys to eat corn dyed blue and another to eat corn dyed pink, in effect creating “two different cultures” of monkeys.
When new members — babies and migrating males — joined the two groups, they followed the “local mores,” eating the same-colored corn as the other monkeys. Babies ate the same color of corn as their mothers. Seven of the ten males who migrated among monkey colonies ate the locally preferred color the first time they ate any corn; the only newcomer who did not do so was a monkey who, immediately on joining a group, assumed the top rank.
Having such a top-ranking monkey around also had a clear effect on the other males’ food choices, with 9 out of 10 sticking to the locally preferred color of corn the first time when no such top-ranking male was absent. The absence of an “alpha male” monkey meant the lower-ranked males were more inclined to follow whatever those around them and to be, indeed, more social.
Humpbacks Learn to Hunt Better From Watching Others
Another St. Andrews researcher, Jennie Allen, has found that humpback whales in the Gulf of Maine take cues from other whales in their feeding. All humpback wheels use the technique of blowing bubble under schools of fish; doing so makes the fish gather together to avoid swimming through the bubbles. The whales then lunge themselves up and eat an extra-big helping of fish.
In 1980, people noted that one humpback was smacking its tail fluke onto the water’s surface before the bubble feed in what some have called “lobtail feeding.” While only the one whale was seen to do this in 1980 in one feeding event (out of a sample of 150 feeding events), by 2007, more than a third (37 percent) of Gulf of Maine humpbacks were using lobtail feeding. Further study of data collected between 1980 and 2007 about the the behavior of humpback whales enabled Allen to learn that those who spent more time together are “likely to transmit behaviors to each other.” In fact, after learning lobtail feeding from other humpbacks, as many as 87 percent of the humpbacks employed it, too.
Scientists have also found that humpback whales transmit their songs culturally. Male humpbacks produce the songs as part of their mating behavior. All the males in a single population not only sing that same song; when the song changes, all the whales incorporate the new material.
For the whales to be able to share hunting techniques as well as songs means that, as Luke Rendell, a biologist at St Andrews and co-author of the whale study, says , “we have a population with two independently evolving cultural traditions — a culture.”
Whale and Monkey Cultures and Adaptability
Such findings lend weight to arguments that whales indeed have rights and monkeys and primates, too. By capturing them and making them live in captivity under our control, we’re in effect subjecting them to live according to a foreign, alien culture and to follow our baffling habits.
Saying that someone is “aping” someone else is a derogatory way of saying one person is rotely, ignorantly imitating someone else. Based on these two recent studies, to “ape” someone amounts to just doing what “humans” do, imitating what someone (some monkey or whale) is doing because it’s a good idea. Possessing imitation skills suggests the capacity monkeys and whales have for being able to ascertain that certain ways of doing things are an improvement over others and for adapting to new and changing circumstances.
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