Chimps can learn to make their own tools watching video demos

July 1st, 2009 - 2:38 pm ICT by ANI  

London, July 1 (ANI): St Andrews University researchers in Scotland have shown that chimpanzees can be learn how to make their own tools by watching demonstrations on video.

For this work, the researchers trained a chimpanzee to make a long pole for prizing out-of-reach fruit from a tree, and then filmed the animal constructing the handy tool from a variety of different parts.

They say that watching a video of the feat, other chimps were also able to make their own similar tools.

Elizabeth Price, who led the study at the university’s School of Psychology, said that she wanted to discover whether chimps could learn to make a tool from separate parts after watching other animals use materials to improve their lives.

She pointed out that some birds are able to use twigs to pull grubs out of hiding places, and monkeys have been known to strip leaves from branches to fish for termites.

According to her, the findings of her study are “the first evidence that chimpanzees can socially learn how to construct tools,” and show that the animals are more intelligent than previously thought.

“It is very exciting as we didn’t know chimps could do this,” the Scotsman quoted her as saying.

“You could say the videos were like Blue Peter and ‘Here’s one I made earlier’.

“The chimps really needed to see the full instructional video to learn how to make the long tool and gain the reward.

“Most of those who didn’t watch the video, couldn’t make the tool,” she added.

Along with Professor Andrew Whiten of St Andrews University, Elizabeth led an international team of primate experts to uncover the remarkable learning feats of the chimpanzees.

The researchers presented chimpanzees in a primate centre at the University of Texas with a grape that was just out of reach.

They showed some chimps a video of another chimpanzee expertly slotting one stick into another to create a rake, and then using the tool to get the fruit.

Others were shown a shorter video showing a chimpanzee using a ready-made tool.

The researchers found chimpanzees that watched the full video demonstration were able to copy what they saw, and make the tools themselves.

In a follow-up test, since the grapes were put within reach, the use of a longer tool was unnecessary.

The researchers observed that the chimps that had learnt the skill by watching the full video persisted in making the rake, which in the new scenario was more awkward to use.

However, a few individual chimps that had watched the shorter video still managed to make a tool, did not do so when the grape was close enough to reach without help.

Elizabeth said: “These results are important not only because they provide the first evidence that chimpanzees can socially learn how to construct tools, but also because they suggest that social learning can have a potent effect on how an individual approaches related problems later.”

Based on the observations made during the study, she came to the conclusion that learning from others can lead to a less flexible approach to novel situations.

She and her colleagues are now planning to discover the extent to which our own species is vulnerable to a similar effect, by looking at children’s abilities.

Elizabeth added: “Social learning plays a major role in the spread of complex technologies in humans.”

The research has been published in the online edition of the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B. (ANI)

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