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Child vs chimp

A primate expert has developed an innovative technique which is providing the first clear evidence that children and chimpanzees learn the traditions of the community they live in by similar processes of imitation.

Professor Andrew Whiten from the School of Psychology at the University of St Andrews is using specially-designed “artificial fruits” as tools to establish how chimpanzees learn. The technique has been chosen to feature in this month’s Royal Society New Frontiers in Science Exhibition, an event aimed at showcasing the best of British science.

Last year, an international collaborative study led by Professor Whiten revealed that chimpanzees lead a rich cultural life. The results of 151 years worth of studies of chimps across Africa showed they have extensive and varied behaviour patterns learned by observation and apprenticeship, however, the African studies raised the question of exactly how chimpanzee cultures are passed on from generation to generation.

Professor Whiten said, “It is almost impossible to explain this while watching chimpanzees in the wild because of the difficulty in disentangling what youngsters learn from others and what they learn through their own experiences.

“By allowing groups of captive chimpanzees to watch different behaviour patterns being directed at artificial fruits, we have solved this problem. In the wild, apes have to manipulate some foods and get rid of “defences” like hard fruit shells and spines before they can get at the nice, soft, edible bit in the middle. These special boxes, which are similar to puzzle boxes, behave like real food challenges in the wild. In effect, the beginnings of cultural differences are being produced experimentally”.

Professor Whiten has recently returned from a visit to Uganda, where the study is being extended to groups of chimpanzees introduced into a forested, 100-acre island sanctuary in Lake Victoria. By repeating the same experiments with children, the researchers have shown for the first time that the two closely-related species learn by remarkably similar processes of imitation, although what chimps pick up tends to be a cruder copy than children’s.

The artificial fruits research has been chosen to feature in the forthcoming New Frontiers in Science Exhibition 2000. Being held in Edinburgh and London, The Royal Society event is a showcase for scientific innovation, giving visitors an opportunity to explore cutting-edge science, engineering and technology. Professor Whiten heads one of 20 teams selected to take part in the event, which is expected to attract around 5000 people, ranging from government decision-makers to industry leaders and school groups.

As well as the artificial fruits, the “Chimpanzee Cultures” interactive display will highlight the behavioural differences between chimpanzee communities in different corners of Africa. Visitors will be able to tap into a dynamic graphical database accessed via the University’s Chimpanzee Cultures website (http://chimp.st-and.ac.uk/cultures). This allows the public to select chimpanzee behaviour patterns like “ant-dipping”, “nut-cracking” and “leaf-sponging”, see them illustrated through drawings, photographs or video clips and inspect their distribution patterns across Africa.

The exhibition, which is free of charge, will be held at The Royal Society in London from Tuesday 20 June until Thursday 22 June (http://www.royalsoc.ac.uk) and at The Royal Society of Edinburgh on Wednesday 28 and Thursday 29 June 2000 (http://www.newfrontiers.ed.ac.uk).

NOTE TO EDITORS – For more information, please contact Professor Andrew Whiten direct on telephone (01334) 462073. To obtain a photograph of Professor Whiten with a chimp manipulating an artificial fruit, please contact Claire Grainger – contact details below.

Issued by Beattie Media on behalf of the University of St Andrews For more information please contact Claire Grainger on 01334 462530, 07730 415 015 or email cg24@st-andrews.ac.uk Ref: chimps/standrews/chg/1june2000

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