Animal Cognition

, Volume 14, Issue 5, pp 683–693

Local traditions in gorilla manual skill: evidence for observational learning of behavioral organization

  • Richard W. Byrne
  • Catherine Hobaiter
  • Michelle Klailova
Original Paper

DOI: 10.1007/s10071-011-0403-8

Cite this article as:
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.


Great apeGorilla gorillaImitationTechniqueFeeding skillAnimal culture

Supplementary material

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ESM_1 Video of mountain gorilla processing nettle in group-typical way (MPG 4409 kb)

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ESM_2 Video of captive gorilla processing nettle; file kindly provided by Dr. Claudio Tennie, who noted that this video was “typical” of the behavior analyses in Tennie et al. (2008) (MPG 4782 kb)

10071_2011_403_MOESM3_ESM.doc (48 kb)
ESM_3 Table giving full definitions of action elements identified during the current study (DOC 48 kb)
10071_2011_403_MOESM4_ESM.doc (243 kb)
ESM_4 Flowcharts of individual Port Lympne gorillas processing nettle (DOC 243 kb)
10071_2011_403_MOESM5_ESM.doc (28 kb)
ESM_5 Comparison of general features of nettle processing behavior, between Port Lympne and Karisoke (DOC 27 kb)
10071_2011_403_MOESM6_ESM.doc (25 kb)
ESM_6 Detailed description of the two nettle processing techniques used by Port Lympne gorillas (DOC 25 kb)
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ESM_7 Video of Port Lympne gorilla Djala using the leaves-separate technique for processing nettles (MPG 6862 kb)

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ESM_8 Video of Port Lympne gorilla Kishi using the leaves-separate technique for processing nettles (MPG 8080 kb)

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ESM_9 Video of Port Lympne gorilla Jaja using the leaves-separate technique for processing nettles (MPG 15024 kb)

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ESM_10 Video of Port Lympne gorilla Dishi using the leaves-separate technique for processing nettles (MPG 8034 kb)

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ESM_11 Video of Port Lympne gorilla Kibi using the leaves-separate technique for processing nettles (MPG 8230 kb)

10071_2011_403_MOESM12_ESM.tif (2.6 mb)
ESM_12 Photo of Laportea alatipes, taken at Karisoke (TIFF 2612 kb)
10071_2011_403_MOESM13_ESM.jpg (223 kb)
ESM_13 Photo of European Urtica dioica (JPEG 222 kb)
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ESM_14 Video of captive gorilla using the action described by Tennie et al. (2008) as “folding”; file kindly provided by Dr Claudio Tennie (MPG 724 kb)

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  • Richard W. Byrne
    • 1
  • Catherine Hobaiter
    • 1
  • Michelle Klailova
    • 2
  1. 1.Centre for Social Learning and Cognitive Evolution and Scottish Primate Research Group, School of PsychologyUniversity of St AndrewsSt AndrewsScotland, UK
  2. 2.Scottish Primate Research Group, Department of PsychologyUniversity of StirlingStirlingScotland, UK