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Monkey See, Monkey Do: Wild Primates can Learn New Tricks From Videos

Sep 03, 2014 10:05 AM EDT

New research shows that wild monkeys can indeed learn new tricks - that is, after watching videos of other monkeys.

The finding is surprising because animals are known to copy each others' movements in captivity, but not in the wild. Scientists from the Universities of Vienna and St. Andrews have now found that wild marmosets can learn from videos of other monkeys.

Wild marmosets, native to Brazil, are known to be extremely social, making them ideal candidates for this research.

For the study, the researchers first trained captive marmosets to perform certain tasks, such as opening a drawer and lifting the lid off a jar to get food. They taped these sessions and then played the videos to wild monkeys in a forest, according to Phys.org.

As many as 108 monkeys were filmed in the wild. These animals were divided into 12 groups, some of which were shown videos where the monkeys opened a drawer while others watched clips of animals lifting a lid off a box. One group was simply shown still images of the task.

The researchers found that 12 monkeys learned how to perform the task after seeing the videos. One marmoset even figured out the task after seeing the still image, showing that these animals possess varying levels of intelligence.

"To our knowledge, this is the first study that used video demonstrations in the wild and demonstrated the potent force of social learning, even from unfamiliar conspecifics, under field conditions," the researchers wrote in the journal Biology Letters.

The study leaves several questions unanswered. Marmosets are territorial animals, so they should have reacted strongly to the monkeys in the videos. However, the test animals made peace with a strange monkey performing a task in the video.

Watch a video of the experiment, here.

In a similar monkey-see, monkey-do fashion, a recent related study has shown that cockatoos can not only learn tool-making skills from each other, but also improvise the tools.

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