New research suggests that chimpanzees can learn to use tools more efficiently by watching how others use them.
The study presents the first experimental evidence that chimps, like humans, can watch and learn a group member's invention of a better technique.
Shinya Yamamoto and colleagues from Kyoto University and Kent University, UK, provided chimps with juice-boxes that had a small hole and straws to drink with.
One group of chimps used the straws like dipsticks, dipping and removing them to suck on the end, while the other group learned to suck through the straw directly.
Learning both techniques required the same cognitive and motor skills, but chimps that drank through the straw got considerably more juice in a shorter amount of time. When the first group of chimps watched either a human or a chimp demonstrate the more efficient 'straw-sucking' technique, all of them switched to using this instead.
The study concludes, "When chimpanzees are dissatisfied with their own technique, they may socially learn an improved technique by closely observing a proficient demonstrator."
According to the authors, their results provide insights into the cognitive basis for the evolution of culture in chimpanzees, and suggest ways that culture could evolve in non-human animals.
The study was recently published in the open access journal PLOS ONE.