A new study finds that monkeys, like humans, change their behavior to adapt to social norms and even vary their eating habits to blend in with new surroundings and new groups of monkeys.
The study was summarized in The New York Times:
"Wild Vervet monkeys, trained to eat only pink-dyed or blue-dyed corn and shun the other color, quickly began eating the disliked-color corn when they moved from a pink-preferred setting to a blue-is-best place, and vice versa.
"The switch occurred even though both corn colors were equally accessible, side-by-side in open containers. Scientists said the monkeys relinquished their color convictions because they saw the locals eating the hated hue.
"The findings addressed a long-contentious question among animal experts: is animal behavior determined only by genes and individual learning, or can animals, like humans, learn socially?"
Until recently, researchers at Oxford said that genes and environment, not social cues, were the main factors in primate behavior, according to The New York Times.
THE TAKEAWAY: Whether monkeys or humans, it's the young who are first to try something new.
Erica van de Waal, a research fellow at St. Andrews University and an author of the study, explained to Kerri Miller that individual moneys differed in their willingness to change their eating habits.
"The females are the most conservative of all," Van de Waal said. "The three dominant ones never, ever tried even a single corn of the other color, even if their offspring were eating sometimes handfuls of the other color. When they see it, they have access to both, right in front of them. It really seems that the adults are very conservative."
"That's typical," observed Craig Stanford, a primatologist from the University of Southern California. "Whenever we look at almost any animal that exhibits social learning, we see that it's always the kids. It's the juveniles. And I think even if you look at our own society, it's usually the youth who make the breakthrough. They're the lateral thinkers, right? Why that is, neurologically, I can't say. They maybe have less-set behavior patterns, so they have a tendency to be less hidebound in the way that they approach life.
"To some extent — and we see this even in the human fossil record, when we find these ancient stone tools that our ancestors made — there seems to be this ethic of, 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it.' For instance, to take this into the human realm, Homo erectus, one of our human ancestors, used the same stone tool with very minor modifications for over a million years. That's 50,000 generations. So when you think about the fact that today I'm waiting for the next iPhone to come out because mine is six months old — we just want to leap to the newest technology at every chance.
"But when survival's on the line, you don't really do that. Because if you invent the wrong tool or you don't use it properly, it could really cost you, big time. So I think conservatism is also kind of built into our species, and our ancestors' species. And then that lateral thinker ... maybe he makes that innovation a thousand times, but only once does it actually get observed and picked up, and then that's a big deal."
Beyond the new findings on adopting their cohorts' eating habits, Vervet monkeys have apparently learned some very human behavior, too. Some in the Caribbean like to get drunk on the beach:
LEARN MORE ABOUT PRIMATE RESEARCH:
"Planet Without Apes," with Dr. Craig Stanford
PBS: "Chimpanzee Testing: Is it the Beginning of the End?"
Watch Chimpanzee Testing: Is it the Beginning of the End? on PBS. See more from PBS NewsHour.
• As Harvard closes a primate research center, are lab chimps becoming a thing of the past?
"In a surprise move, Harvard Medical School announced yesterday that it would be closing a controversial primate research center where four monkeys died between 2010 and 2012 because of problems with animal care." (Time)
• Monkey calls could offer clues for origin of human speech
"Melissa Block talks with researcher Thore Bergman about his findings that a rare type of Ethiopian monkey, the gelada, makes a human-like sound that could offer insights into the evolution of human speech." (NPR)
• Monkey, new to science, found in Central Africa
"It would seem difficult to overlook something as large as a new species of monkey, but scientists had no idea about the lesula until just a few years ago when conservation biologist John Hart discovered a specimen being kept as a pet in the Democratic Republic of Congo." (NPR)
• What was he thinking? Study turns to ape intellect
"The more we study animals, the less special we seem. Baboons can distinguish between written words and gibberish. Monkeys seem to be able to do multiplication. Apes can delay instant gratification longer than a human child can. They plan ahead. They make war and peace. They show empathy. They share." (Associated Press)