Do captive mandrills invent new gestures?

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Studies of intraspecific behavioral variability have documented cases where behaviors are present in some populations or groups but are absent in others. In some cases these differences cannot be explained by recourse to environmental or genetic variation, and may instead represent “traditions”. Despite many examples of animal traditions in acoustic communication, relatively few examples exist of gestural traditions. Here I report on a study of communication across eight captive groups of mandrills (Mandrillus sphinx) in which a prominent gesture (Hand extension) was unique to two groups. Habitat variability, genetic differences, and sampling bias were not sufficient to account for the gesture’s limited distribution across the study groups. Within the two groups where the gesture did occur only the juveniles in the group performed it, consistently directing it toward adults. Quantitative analysis of the contexts and responses associated with the gesture suggested that juveniles utilized it to provoke adults. Moreover, the gesture appeared to minimize the risk juveniles incurred while inciting adults, suggesting that repeated social interactions shaped the gesture’s form. Interestingly, both the groups where the gesture emerged contained few juveniles. With limited play partners, these juveniles may have resorted to harassing adults as an alternative social play outlet. The creation of this novel gesture may thus be due to the combined influence of a shortage of play partners and of the increased free time for playful social exploration afforded by captivity. Although juveniles frequently “eavesdropped” on dyadic interactions involving the gesture and would subsequently initiate an interaction with the recipient of the gesture, there was no definitive evidence for social transmission; the gesture could instead have been independently invented by each juvenile.

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I thank the Rosamond Gifford Zoo, the Buffalo Zoological Gardens, the Lowry Park Zoo, the Staten Island Zoo, the Centre International de Recherches Médicales, and the Paignton Zoo Environmental Park for making their animals available for study. For comments and discussion I thank Jeanne Altmann, Tim Clutton-Brock, Sarah Hodge, Hans Kummer, Susan Perry, Thomas Seeley, Alex Thornton, Michael Tomasello, Sandra Vehrencamp, and Jessica Yorzinski. Critiques from three anonymous referees helped improve the manuscript. Adam Arcadi introduced me to the Syracuse mandrills and Benjamin Clock helped produce pictures of the gesture. This research complies with the current laws of the countries in which it was performed and it was supported by grants from the Howard Hughes Medical Foundation, the Andrew W. Mellon Fund, the Explorers Club, and by support from Sandra Vehrencamp.

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Correspondence to Mark E. Laidre.

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Fig. S1. Video clip of a juvenile female (right) in the Syracuse group directing Hand extension at an adult female. (Note that Fig. 1A derives from this video clip.) (WMV 2.41 Mb)

Fig. S1. Video clip of a juvenile female (right) in the Syracuse group directing Hand extension at an adult female. (Note that Fig. 1A derives from this video clip.) (WMV 2.41 Mb)

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Laidre, M.E. Do captive mandrills invent new gestures?. Anim Cogn 11, 179 (2008).

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  • Innovation
  • Tradition
  • Gestural communication
  • Captivity
  • Mandrillus