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'Monkey See, Monkey Do' a Real Phenomenon for Monkeys and Whales

Apr 25, 2013 09:54 PM EDT

Researchers are finding more concrete evidence that humans are not the only species which pass traditions down from generation to generation, but humpback whales and vervet monkeys also learn behavior from their peers.

According to two studies published Thursday in the Science journal, South African monkeys selected which food to eat based purely on what their peers ate, and humpback whales off the coast of New England copied a new hunting technique from their each other.

Whales were forced to find new prey after stocks of their preferred food, herrings, crashed in the early 1980s. A new hunting technique was invented which involves a whale slapping the water's surface a few times with the end of its tail and only then dived down to bubble feed. The technique, known as lobtail feeding, has spread to around 40 percent of humpback whales, according to the study headed by researchers from the University of St Andrews.

"Our study really shows how vital cultural transmission is in humpback populations - not only do they learn their famous songs from each other, they also learn feeding techniques that allow them to buffer the effects of changing ecology," said Dr Luke Rendell, lecturer in the School of Biology at the University of St Andrews in Scotland.

The scientists believe their results strengthen the case that cetaceans have evolved sophisticated cultural capacities.

In another study led by Erica van de Waal, of the University of St. Andrews, she looked at 109 vervet monkeys living in groups in the wild in South Africa. Each monkey was given a choice of food colored pink or blue and one color for each group was tainted with aloe to give it a harmless but nasty flavor. After a few meals, the researchers stopped tainting the food, but the monkeys still wouldn't eat the color they associated with the foul taste.

The interesting part occurred when the monkeys were placed with a new group of monkeys - they began to demonstrate copy-cat behavior similar to humans when trying to fit in. Blue-food eaters instantly switch when they moved to an area full of pink-food eaters, even though they shunned pink food before. Pink eaters also changed when they moved to a blue-food area.

The monkeys cave under the peer pressure similar to "teenagers with a desperate need to be just like the other guys," said co-author Andrew Whiten, of St. Andrews. Perhaps it could be that they are trying to adapt and learn the new local custom as in "when in Rome, do as the Romans do," he added.

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