Researchers have made a fascinating discovery about bumblebees and chimpanzees

Research on culture in animals

Culture can be defined as the sum of socially learned behaviors that persist in a population over time. Examples of emerging non-human cultures have been documented, thus calling into question the former exclusive notion of human culture.

Animal culture, although similar to human culture in its social and transmission aspects, naturally differs from human culture in terms of complexity and scope. Nevertheless, the understanding of culture in animals has evolved considerably, shedding light on the behavioral traditions that are transmitted within animal populations.

Cumulative culture, a very complex skill

In addition, cumulative culture represents a higher level of complexity. It is defined by the social transmission of innovations or beneficial behavioral modifications within a population, leading to successive improvements or sequential development.

A simple example of cumulative culture in humans is the evolution of tools used for hunting or gathering over time. Imagine a prehistoric tribe that used rudimentary sticks or stones to hunt or gather food.

A member of this tribe discovers a new method of cutting stones to make more efficient arrowheads. This new technique is then shared with other members of the tribe, who begin to adopt and improve upon it.

Over the generations, tribe members continue to perfect this technique, experimenting with different materials and carving methods. Acquired knowledge and skills are passed down from generation to generation, and in the end the tribe develops increasingly sophisticated and efficient tools for hunting and gathering, thus representing an example of cumulative culture.

This notion of cumulative culture is based on the concept of a “ratchet,” where traditions are preserved within a population with sufficient fidelity to allow successive improvements. This process often requires advanced forms of social learning, such as imitative copying or tutoring, long thought to be exclusive to humans.

Furthermore, note that cumulative human culture includes behaviors so complex that they are beyond the ability of any individual to discover on their own in their lifetime.

<p>Neanderthal chimpanzees</p>
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What about animals?

Evidence suggests that some animals can also form a cumulative culture under certain circumstances. For example, studies have shown that pigeons, when tasked with returning home from a new location, find efficient routes more quickly when the members of pairs change gradually. This is attributed to innovations introduced by new individuals, leading to a gradual improvement of the routes.

However, it remains unclear whether changes can accumulate to the point where the final behavior becomes too complex for an individual to innovate alone, but can still be acquired by that individual through social learning. This distinction, which is often based on an individual's ability to re-innovate behavior during their lifetime, highlights a fundamental difference between human and non-human cognition.

Which brings us back to these two studies. Research on bumblebees and chimpanzees has indeed recently provided interesting examples of the ability to form cumulative culture in specific contexts.

pigeon culture

Credit: Ayman-Alakhras/istock

The study of bumblebees

In the first study, researchers undertook an experiment to investigate bumblebees' ability to learn complex skills through observation and imitation, highlighting their potential for cumulative breeding.

In this experiment, researchers trained a team of demonstrator bumblebees to solve a two-step puzzle in order to receive a food reward. The first step of the puzzle required performing an unrewarded action, followed by a second step that was rewarded.

Demonstrator bumblebees were trained to complete both steps of the puzzle. So-called “naive” bumblebee observers were then introduced and had the opportunity to watch the demonstrators solve the puzzle.

The results showed that although naive bumblebee observers failed to take the first unrewarded step on their own, a third of them were able to solve the two-step puzzle after watching the demonstrator. This suggests that bumblebees can learn complex behaviors through social learning, even if these behaviors exceed their ability to discover them individually through trial and error.

Additionally, naïve bumblebee observers failed to solve the puzzle despite prolonged exposure, suggesting that individual learning alone is not sufficient to acquire such complex behavior.

Therefore, this experiment shed light on the ability of bumblebees to form a rudimentary form of cumulative culture, where complex behaviors can be transmitted and acquired through social learning.

bumblebees chimpanzees culture

Credit: Nigel Harris/istock

A study of chimpanzees

Turning to chimpanzees, the researchers sought to determine whether these primates were capable of using social learning to acquire skills they could not develop on their own.

To do this, they trained chimpanzee demonstrators to solve a sequential task involving the use of a puzzle box. This task required a certain sequence of actions to obtain a reward.

Initially, so-called “naive” chimpanzees exposed to the required materials failed to solve the puzzle over a period of three months. The results then showed that 14 of them ultimately learned to solve the task after observing the demonstrator's success. This suggests that chimpanzees use social learning to acquire complex skills that they could not have developed on their own through trial and error.

In addition, the researchers found that social learning was both necessary and sufficient for chimpanzees to acquire a new skill after the initial innovation. This suggests that chimpanzees can effectively use social learning to acquire complex new skills, again challenging the idea that only humans are capable of cumulative culture.

Source: Nature/Nature Human Behavior

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