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Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2012 Jan 12;367(1585):24-36. doi: 10.1098/rstb.2011.0125.

Individual and social learning processes involved in the acquisition and generalization of tool use in macaques.

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  • 1Dipartimento di Biologia Evolutiva e Funzionale, Università di Parma, via Usberti 11/a, 43124 Parma, Italy.


Macaques can efficiently use several tools, but their capacity to discriminate the relevant physical features of a tool and the social factors contributing to their acquisition are still poorly explored. In a series of studies, we investigated macaques' ability to generalize the use of a stick as a tool to new objects having different physical features (study 1), or to new contexts, requiring them to adapt the previously learned motor strategy (study 2). We then assessed whether the observation of a skilled model might facilitate tool-use learning by naive observer monkeys (study 3). Results of study 1 and study 2 showed that monkeys trained to use a tool generalize this ability to tools of different shape and length, and learn to adapt their motor strategy to a new task. Study 3 demonstrated that observing a skilled model increases the observers' manipulations of a stick, thus facilitating the individual discovery of the relevant properties of this object as a tool. These findings support the view that in macaques, the motor system can be modified through tool use and that it has a limited capacity to adjust the learnt motor skills to a new context. Social factors, although important to facilitate the interaction with tools, are not crucial for tool-use learning.

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