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Cultural innovation and transmission of tool use in wild chimpanzees: evidence from field experiments

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Chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) are the most proficient and versatile users of tools in the wild. How such skills become integrated into the behavioural repertoire of wild chimpanzee communities is investigated here by drawing together evidence from three complementary approaches in a group of oil-palm nut- (Elaeis guineensis) cracking chimpanzees at Bossou, Guinea. First, extensive surveys of communities adjacent to Bossou have shown that population-specific details of tool use, such as the selection of species of nuts as targets for cracking, cannot be explained purely on the basis of ecological differences. Second, a 16-year longitudinal record tracing the development of nut-cracking in individual chimpanzees has highlighted the importance of a critical period for learning (3–5 years of age), while the similar learning contexts experienced by siblings have been found to result in near-perfect (13 out of 14 dyads) inter-sibling correspondence in laterality. Third, novel data from field experiments involving the introduction of unfamiliar species of nuts to the Bossou group illuminates key aspects of both cultural innovation and transmission. We show that responses of individuals toward the novel items differ markedly with age, with juveniles being the most likely to explore. Furthermore, subjects are highly specific in their selection of conspecifics as models for observation, attending to the nut-cracking activities of individuals in the same age group or older, but not younger than themselves. Together with the phenomenon of inter-community migration, these results demonstrate a mechanism for the emergence of culture in wild chimpanzees.

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We thank the Direction National de la Recherche Scientifique et Technique, République de Guinée, for permission to conduct field work at Bossou. The research was supported by Grants-in-Aid for scientific research from the Ministry of Education, Science, Sports, and Culture of Japan (grants 07102010, 12002009, 10CE2005, and the 21COE program). We would like to express our gratitude to the following people who have been involved in research at Bossou over the years and thus contributed to the data reported here: Tatyana Humle, Hiroyuki Takemoto, Satoshi Hirata, and Gaku Ohashi for sharing their data on the geographical distribution and abundance of the three species of nuts; and Takao Fushimi, Osamu Sakura, Masako Myowa-Yamakoshi, Satoshi Hirata, Maura Celli, Tomomi Ochiai, and Misato Hayashi for assistance in collecting longitudinal data on laterality and on the development of nut-cracking in infants. We are also grateful to Yukimaru Sugiyama who began the study of wild chimpanzees at Bossou, to Guanou Goumy, Tino Camara, Paquilé Cherif, and Pascal Goumy for assistance in the field, and to W.C. McGrew and three anonymous referees for helpful comments on an earlier version of the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Dora Biro.

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Biro, D., Inoue-Nakamura, N., Tonooka, R. et al. Cultural innovation and transmission of tool use in wild chimpanzees: evidence from field experiments. Anim Cogn 6, 213–223 (2003).

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