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Wild monkeys learn by watching TV

Friday 05 September 2014

Wild monkeys learn by watching TV

Scientists have found that wild monkeys have the ability to learn new tricks – after watching videos of other monkeys in action.

The new study, led by the University of St Andrews and University of Vienna, reveals for the first time, that wild marmoset monkeys are capable of learning to perform tasks by watching others - even monkeys they do not know.

The researchers have already discovered that captive animals can accomplish tasks after watching others perform them, but this is the first time that scientists have been able to show that the same applies to wild animals.

The research was carried out by Wardlaw Professor Andrew Whiten of the University of St Andrews in collaboration with Dr Tina Gunhold and Professor Thomas Bugnyar of the University of Vienna.

The team filmed a group of trained wild marmoset monkeys perform different foraging techniques to open an “artificial fruit” to gain food inside, either by pulling open a drawer or lifting a lid.

Wild monkeys learn by watching TVThese recorded sessions were then replayed to groups of wild monkeys living in Pernambuco, Brazil. Placed in a protective case in the jungle, near where the wild monkeys live and play, a laptop was positioned just above a transparent box containing the treat.

Twelve groups of monkeys were were shown clips of the monkeys successfully opening the fruit, either by opening the drawers or lifting the lid off the box – while one group was shown a still image. The experiment revealed that 12 of the monkeys were able to open the box and 11 of those had watched it being done in the video. The marmosets were also likely to copy whichever way of opening the fruit they had seen.

Professor Whiten, of the School of Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of St Andrews, explains,

“Culture pervades our human lives so thoroughly it may seem like it separates us from the rest of the natural world. But our research is showing that the basic elements of social learning and creation of different regional traditions is shared much more widely amongst primates and other animals”.

Vienna’s Dr Gunhold added, “These new findings could open up a range of possibilities for experimentally introducing behaviours and studying the basis of culture in animals.”

The study, Video demonstrations seed alternative problem-solving techniques in wild common marmosets, is published in scientific journal Biology Letters.

Wild monkeys learn from watching TV from University of St Andrews on Vimeo.


Images and a video package are available from the University of St Andrews Press Office. Contact or telephone 01334 462 530

Dr Tina Gunhold, University of Vienna, is available for interview and can be contact on
Dr Whiten is not available at this time.

Issued by the University of St Andrews Press Office
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