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Chimps Show Signs of Culture

Animals conform to behavior dictated by society in which they live, researchers say

FRIDAY, Oct. 23 (HealthDay News) -- Humans have wide varieties of culture that differ from nation to nation, city to city and even neighborhood to neighborhood.

Now, a new study suggests that chimpanzees have their own form of culture that varies by where they live.

Researchers found that chimpanzee populations that live next to each other in Uganda perform a chore -- getting honey out of a tree log -- in different ways.

In a study published online Oct. 22 in the journal Current Biology, researchers noted that chimps in the Kibale Forest use sticks to reach honey that's stuck in logs. In the neighboring Budongo Forest, they use what researchers call "leaf sponges" -- packets of chewed leaves that are absorbent and suck up the honey.

"The most reasonable explanation for this difference in tool use was that chimpanzees resorted to pre-existing cultural knowledge in trying to solve the novel task," study co-author Klaus Zuberbuhler of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, said in a news release from the journal's publisher. "Culture, in other words, helped them in dealing with a novel problem."

The researchers define culture as behavior learned from others in a society, Zuberbuhler explained. It's not instinctual or something that animals or people pick up on their own without the help of others in their social group.

There's controversy over whether animals have culture. Some scientists speculate that what appears to be culture is actually behavior that's affected by environment and genetics.

In the new study, researchers watched the chimpanzee groups as they tried to cope with a log with honey trapped inside.

"With our experiment, we were able to rule out that the observed differences in chimpanzee tool-use behavior are the result of genetic differences because we tested members of the same subspecies," Zuberbuhler said.

More information

Learn more about culture from Butler University.

-- Randy Dotinga

SOURCE: Cell Press, news release, Oct. 22, 2009

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