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Anim Cogn. 2009 Mar;12(2):209-16. doi: 10.1007/s10071-008-0183-y. Epub 2008 Sep 3.

Skill mastery inhibits adoption of observed alternative solutions among chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes).

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Anthropological Institute and Museum, University of Zurich-Irchel, Winterthurerstrasse 190, 8057, Zurich, Switzerland.


Geographic variation in socially transmitted skills and signals, similar to human culture, has been well documented for great apes. The rules governing the adoption of novel behaviours, however, are still largely unknown. We conducted an innovation-and-transmission experiment with two groups of chimpanzees living at hopE Primate Sanctuary Gänserndorf, Austria, presenting a board on which food had to be manoeuvred around obstacles to be acquired. Most chimpanzees used sticks to acquire the food, but five adults independently invented a novel technique, rattling, which was subsequently tested by almost all group members. However, individuals who had become proficient with sticks were reluctant to switch to rattling, despite it being more efficient. Similarly, after rattling was prevented, rattle specialists kept trying to rattle and made no attempt to use the stick technique, despite their knowledge about its existence. We conclude that innovators stimulate others to experiment with the solutions they display, but that chimpanzees are nevertheless conservative; mastery of a skill inhibits further exploration, and hence adoption of alternative techniques even if these are more efficient. Consequently, conformity among group members should not be expected in great apes when individuals develop proficiency at different techniques. Conservatism thus joins conformity as a mechanism to bring about cultural uniformity and stability.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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