Local traditions in gorilla manual skill: evidence for observational learning of behavioral organization
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- Byrne, R.W., Hobaiter, C. & Klailova, M. Anim Cogn (2011) 14: 683. doi:10.1007/s10071-011-0403-8
Elaborate manual skills of food processing are known in several species of great ape; but their manner of acquisition is controversial. Local, “cultural” traditions show the influence of social learning, but it is uncertain whether this includes the ability to imitate the organization of behavior. Dispute has centered on whether program-level imitation contributes to the acquisition of feeding techniques in gorillas. Here, we show that captive western gorillas at Port Lympne, Kent, have developed a group-wide habit of feeding on nettles, using two techniques. We compare their nettle processing behavior with that of wild mountain gorillas in Rwanda. Both populations are similar in their repertoires of action elements, and in developing multi-step techniques for food processing, with coordinated asymmetric actions of the hands and iteration of parts of a process as “subroutines”. Crucially, however, the two populations deal in different ways with the special challenges presented by nettle stings, with consistently different organizations of action elements. We conclude that, while an elaborate repertoire of manual actions and the ability to develop complex manual skills are natural characteristics of gorillas, the inter-site differences in nettle-eating technique are best explained as a consequence of social transmission. According to this explanation, gorillas can copy aspects of program organization from the behavior of others and they use this ability when learning how to eat nettles, resulting in consistent styles of processing by most individuals at each different site; like other great apes, gorillas have the precursor abilities for developing culture.