Monkey Culture Recent research on capuchin monkeys in Costa Rica suggest that they have bona fide cultural traditions. In other words, they engage in activities that do not stem from their biology. Instead, these are behaviors that are invented by small collections of monkeys, then learned by other members of the troupe.
It's been known for some time that great apes such as chimpanzees and gorillas engage in cultural behavior. There was initially some resistance to this idea, since culture was once thought to be the exclusive domain of human beings. This current research is the most impressive evidence to date that such behavior extends to monkeys as well.
The details are available in this article from Science News. Here's an excerpt:
It's not easy keeping up with pint-size monkeys in the jungle. The teams of researchers who've been doing it for the past 14 years have had to put up with a lot: barreling face-first into spider webs before sunrise, hacking through dense, bug-infested undergrowth, getting droppings in their hair, and being heckled by cantankerous little monkeys called capuchins. Still, there's no place Susan Perry would rather be than the forests of the Lomas Barbudal Biological Reserve in Costa Rica.
Two adults practice what researchers call hand sniffing. The capuchins stick their fingers up each other's nose and sway gently, holding the pose for several minutes at a time.
Perry is a primatologist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, and she's been studying white-faced capuchins (Cebus capucinus) at Lomas Barbudal since 1990. Each day in the field, she and her colleagues get to observe these monkeys' curious interactions, some of the quirkiest behavior in the animal kingdom.
For example, one game begins when one monkey bites a clump of hair from another monkey's face. The two monkeys use their teeth to pass the clump back and forth, dropping a little hair each time. When the hair runs out, the game begins again.
In another unusual duet, two monkeys sit together for long periods, swaying gently—with their fingers up each other's nose.
These are among the numerous social conventions that Perry and her colleagues call "traditions." The behaviors are so named because they don't appear to be an inherent part of the animals' biology; instead, the knee-high monkeys seem either to invent them or to learn them from each other.
Perry also observed that only certain individuals in certain cliques practice the behaviors. Moreover, the activities aren't necessarily perennial: They endure for various lengths of time and can be modified in the life of a monkey troop. They can become fashionable, fall out of use, and return some years later.
Innovative, learned, parochial, transient, flexible—these words describe some of the hallmarks of cultural behaviors, as set forth in numerous studies of nonhuman primates. Does this make capuchins a species with culture, as many researchers suggest that chimpanzees and other great apes are (SN: 6/19/99, p. 388)? And what do the strange high jinks mean to the capuchins?