By Pam Belluck, The New York Times, April 25, 2013
If you’re eating lunch in Pittsburgh or Dallas, you might grab a sandwich and a Snapple to go. But if you happen to get transferred to Paris (quel dommage!), chances are you’ll start eating like the French: two- or three-course sit-down lunches complete with a glass of wine.
In a clever, groundbreaking study published Thursday in the journal Science, researchers showed that when Vervet monkeys roam, they act in when-in-Rome fashion.
In the study, wild Vervet monkeys, conditioned to eat only pink-dyed corn or blue-dyed corn and to shun the other color, quickly began eating the disliked-color corn when they moved from a pink-preferred setting to a blue-is-best place, and vice versa.
The switch occurred even though both corn colors were equally accessible, sitting side-by-side in open containers. Scientists said the only explanation was that the monkeys relinquished their strongly held color convictions because they saw the locals happily eating the hated hue.
The findings addressed a long-contentious question among animal experts: is animal behavior determined only by genes and individual learning, or can animals, like humans, learn socially?
“Until relatively recently, culture was thought to be something only humans had,” said Carel van Schaik, an evolutionary anthropologist at the University of Zurich who was not involved in the study. “But if you define culture as socially transmitted knowledge, skills and information, it turns out that we see some of that in animals. Now this experiment comes along and I must say it really blew me away.”
He added: “Imagine you’ve just learned to eat pink corn and for a while blue corn was really bad, but then you move to an area where it’s the opposite and basically you wipe your slate clean and you adopt the local preference. You think, ‘Oh, these locals, they must know what’s the best thing.'”
Other studies have shown similar social learning abilities in whales, orangutans and other animals that live in groups.
“I don’t expect it in bacteria or slugs,” Dr. van Schaik said. “But in these long-lived species that are social, you’re actually willing to give up what you know, drop that memory like a hot potato, because those in the other place do something else.”