Imitate the chef, the vervet monkey learning strategy

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To learn, vervet monkeys prefer to copy what the dominant members of their group do, according to a new study carried out in South Africa by researchers from Lausanne. 

“Stop copying!” Is a sentence that would have no meaning in a school of vervet monkeys. Because when it comes to learning, these monkeys are the champions of imitation. New knowledge spreads very quickly to the rest of the group. The highest ranking members are preferred models, as shown in a study published in the journal Nature Communications .

The transmission of knowledge is a subject that fascinates the primatologist Erica van de Waal, from the University of Lausanne. His research focuses on vervet monkeys. She was a pioneer in transposing laboratory study methods to wild monkeys in South Africa.

Lid or drawer

In this new study, the primatologist and his team retraced the path of the transmission of knowledge within groups of monkeys. For this, they have placed on the territory of animals boxes each containing an apple slice, a real treasure during the winter period. But to reach this treat, they had to learn how to lift a lid or pull a drawer.

The researchers observed in two groups which monkeys were the first to open the boxes, with what technique and above all which congeners observed them. This study required recognizing all individuals from a distance. “I first spent a month learning to identify them,” says Charlotte Canteloup, postdoctoral fellow in Erica van de Waal’s laboratory, who spent a total of thirteen months in South Africa.