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Like Humans, Chimps Ape Their Betters

Given a choice, they'll copy actions of higher-status members of the group, study found

MONDAY, May 24, 2010 (HealthDay News) -- Just as humans tend to model their behavior after that of famous and admired individuals, chimpanzees also appear to copy the example of their older, higher-status cohorts, new research reveals.

The finding that chimpanzees share the human inclination to adopt new behaviors and problem-solve based on the influence of what anthropologists call "prestige" is new, and is the result of a collaborative investigation conducted by researchers at Emory University in Atlanta, the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, and Beloit College, Wisc.

The authors published their findings in the May 20 issue of PLoS One.

Celebrities, politicians and community leaders are the figures of emulation for people. Previously, the practice of mimicking behavior in this way was thought to be uniquely human.

But working with chimpanzees as they learned to solve a specific foraging task, the research team found that when given a choice the primates preferred to copy the foraging techniques that were demonstrated by older, higher-status chimps with a successful history of task-solving, rather than that of less well-regarded chimps.

"Because both techniques were equally difficult, shown an equal number of times by both models and resulted in equal rewards, we concluded the most copied chimpanzee enjoyed more prestige than the other," Victoria Horner, of Emory's Yerkes National Primate Research Center, said in a news release. "If similar biases operate in the wild, the spread of cultural behaviors may be significantly shaped by the characteristics of the original performer."

The authors say they plan further research to explore what specific mixture of age, dominance rank and experience form the ideal recipe for chimpanzee prestige.

More information

For more on chimpanzee behavior, head to Lessons For Hope.

SOURCE: Emory University, May 20, 2010, news release
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