Chimp culture seen in ‘real time’

Researchers, including Dr Catherine Hobaiter from the University of St Andrews, have observed the spread of a new tool being invented and used by a group of wild chimpanzees. This is the first time that researchers have been able to track the spread of a natural behaviour from individual to individual in the wild.

Whilst watching chimpanzees in the Sonso community in the Budongo Forest extracting water from a hole in the forest, the researchers noticed two things that they had never seen before in that group – the use of moss to form sponges and the reuse of leaf sponges. Chimpanzees in the Sonso community regularly form bundles of leaves to soak up water, but the use of moss was novel. By using a statistical technique called network-based diffusion analysis the researchers were able to track the spread of the behaviour from the alpha male who first used it, to other individuals who had been watching him.

The study is published in PLOS Biology and can be found online here. There will be more information about chimpanzee cultures and how we can trace the spread of new behaviours using social networks on the Animal Cultures stand in November.