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Gorillas don’t need teachers to learn how to clean their food

Posted December 7, 2017

Humans are not very clean animals. Our moms have to teach us to wash out fruit before eating, but still sometimes we might skip it just because we are lazy. Interestingly, other animals wash their food too and some of them know they have to do it without even watching others wash their food. Now scientists noticed that gorillas clean their food completely spontaneously.

Western lowland gorillas in captivity clean their food in the same way as wild animals do. Image credit: Clément Bardot via Wikimedia(CC BY-SA 4.0)

We tend to attribute our learning behaviour to other animals. And we do see it. If you ever had a cat with kittens, you must have noticed that kittens copy the behaviour of the big cat. It is completely natural as is the mother cat teaching hunting tricks and washing one’s fur. However, as important as social learning is, scientists from the University of Birmingham, University of Tübingen and University of St. Andrews have noticed that captive gorillas sort of reinvent food cleaning behaviour spontaneously. This goes against some recent studies that claimed that such behaviour is learned from others.

While scientists still believe in the power of social learning, they underline that captive gorillas in Leipzig Zoo, Germany, have never crossed paths with wild animals they could have learned this behaviour from. Scientists observed western lowland gorillas. They gave them some dirty and some clean apples. Animals were not too happy about sand-coated apples and were cleaning them in 75 % of the cases. His behaviour could not have been learned from other animals and so gorillas must have reinvented it on their own. Interestingly, one technique of cleaning food that captive gorillas showed can be observed in the wild as well, even though these populations have no connection.

Having in mind that four out of five captive gorillas clean their food as wild animals, we can safely assume that social learning is not crucial to develop this kind of behaviour. Lead author Damien Neadle said: “This fact does not discount the importance of social learning, but simply emphasises the role of individual learning in the emergence of food cleaning behaviour in western lowland gorillas. Here, we argue that individual learning is responsible for the form of the behaviour, whilst social learning possibly contributes to its frequency”. Scientists argue that some behaviour are not too complicated and can be figured out by individuals. However, they can also be learned from other – it is a kind of “soft culture”.

Now we don’t have many things to learn from gorillas, but cleaning your food should be one of them. It is interesting, because we cannot repeat the same experiment with humans. Would a person eat a dirty apple or would he clean it without learning to do so from others?


Source: University of Birmingham

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