Dr. Erica van de Waal, University of St. Andrews – Social Learning in Primates

Nov 7, 2012

In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. Erica van de Waal of the University of St. Andrews reveals the important role mothers play in learning among groups of vervet monkeys. 

Erica van de Waal is a research fellow in the school of psychology and neuroscience at the University of St. Andrews. She conducts field research focused on examining learning among groups of wild vervet monkeys. She holds a Ph.D. from the University of Neuchâtel in Switzerland.

Dr. Erica van de Waal – Social Learning in Primates

We conducted field experiments with wild primates in South Africa to find out what they learn by watching each other. We presented six groups of wild vervet monkeys in Loskop Dam Nature Reserve with grapes covered with sand. Some monkeys cleaned the grapes by rubbing them between their hands, others rubbed them on a surface like a tree-trunk, or on the ground, or on stones, and finally some peeled the grapes, either in their mouth or with their hands. Over time, though, the cleaning behavior became consistent within matrilines – that is, within families that shared a mother. This highlights the importance of the relationship between a mother and her offspring for social learning in this species.

Credit Erica van de Waal
Credit Erica van de Waal

Our experimental design did not allow us to definitely know if the youngsters were learning from the mother or vice versa. But some of our results suggest that mothers, relative to other dominant or adult individuals, may be particularly strong role models because we found that full adult sisters ate less similarly than mother-offspring pairs even though they are as closely related to each other. So we found in our research that the key social unit for social learning in these monkeys is the matriline, whereas similarities in grape cleaning methods at the group level or even between highly related individuals outside the matriline unit were absent. These results have major implications for the biological rules that underlie social learning, and for the scale on which we may expect to find traditions and cultural evolution in natural populations of animals.