ScienceShot: Chimps Imitate Their Idols

24 May 2010 4:43 pm

Humans aren't the only ones who are picky about the role models they emulate. Our closest furry relatives also prefer to copy the behavior of prestigious individuals. In a study reported this month in PLoS ONE, groups of chimps observed a young, low-ranking and an older, high-ranking female perform distinct tasks to receive food (In the photo, high-ranking Ericka is seen on the left and low-ranking Georgia on the right.) One female was trained to deposit a plastic rod into a spotted trash receptacle, while the other female was taught to slip the rod into a striped, erect tube. After observing these routines for 20 minutes, the remaining chimps were allowed to participate. They modeled the behavior of the high-status chimp up to nine times more frequently than the low-ranking one. The practice may explain why there is so much geographic variation in tool use among chimpanzees, and it may be evolutionarily beneficial because high-ranking individuals have a track record of success.

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