Monkeys learn from their leaders, study finds

The researchers studied groups of wild Vervet monkeys in South Africa. Keystone

Wild monkeys learn from dominant individuals in the group, regardless of gender, age or family ties, a Swiss study has found.

This content was published on January 25, 2020 - 11:21

The study by researchers at the University of Lausanne (UNIL) also found that group learning promotes further learning by individual monkeys on their own. Its findings are published in Nature Communications.

“In human societies, opinion leaders and decision makers play a crucial role in our culture,” says project leader Erica van de Waal. “Our findings among the Vervet monkeys suggest that these rules have their roots in evolution.”

She has been leading the “Inkawu Vervet Project” since 2010, studying wild monkeys in South Africa.

For this experiment, two groups of wild Vervet monkeys were given boxes which could open in two ways, either by lifting the lid up or by pulling a drawer out. The boxes, containing a slice of apple as a reward, were placed at dawn by the monkeys’ resting place, and the animals were free to investigate at will. A research team member observed which monkey got the fruit first, by which method, and which other monkeys were watching.

In both groups it was a dominant monkey that succeeded first, a male in one group and a female in the other.

“The method for opening the boxes was passed from the higher ranking individuals to the lower ranking ones,” reports Charlotte Canteloup from the research team.

The researchers found that after learning one of the box-opening methods in the group, the monkeys had a much higher chance of discovering the other method by themselves.

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