Chimpanzees play ‘chinese whispers’

Monday 28 August 2006

A new experiment shows chimpanzees, like people, pass on behaviours across several ‘cultural generations’.

The behavioural experiment conducted by a collaborative research team from the University of St Andrews and the Yerkes National Primate Research Center of Emory University in Atlanta has shown, for the first time, that a non-human primate can pass information down a chain of individuals modelled on the game of ‘Chinese whispers’.

The study was designed to simulate transmission of a behaviour over multiple generations to more closely examine how chimpanzees learn from each other and the potential longevity of their culture. The findings are published online in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA (PNAS).

Dr Victoria Horner and Professor Andrew Whiten of the University of St Andrews and Professor Frans B.M. de Waal of the Yerkes Research Center, confirmed that a particular behaviour can be accurately transmitted along a chain of up to six chimpanzees, representing six simulated generations equaling approximately 90 years of culture in the wild. A comparative benchmark study with three-year-old human children, conducted in St Andrews by Dr Emma Flynn, revealed similar results, providing further evidence that chimpanzees and children show some similarities as creatures of culture.

In the study, researchers introduced a foraging technique to two chimpanzees, one from each testing group, and trained them to open a special testing box one of two ways – either by sliding or lifting the door – to reveal fruit inside. Once each chimpanzee proved successful, another chimpanzee from the same social group was allowed to observe her before interacting with the testing box. Once the second chimpanzee succeeded, a third was allowed to watch, and so on down the chain. In both social groups, the technique used by the original chimpanzee was passed along a chain of six individuals.

“The chimpanzees in this study are using the same techniques as the first chimpanzee in their chain rather than an alternative method,¿ said Horner. “This finding is particularly remarkable considering that some chimpanzees from a control group were able to discover one or other of the methods through individual exploration. Clearly, the observation of one exclusive technique was sufficient for transmission of that behaviour along the chain.”

This research may contribute to a better understanding of how chimpanzees learn complex behaviours in the wild. “By conducting controlled cultural experiments with captive chimpanzees, we are able to learn more about wild population- specific behavioural differences, thought to represent cultural variation,¿ said Horner. “These findings also show great similarity between human and chimpanzee behaviour, suggesting cultural learning may be rooted deep within the evolutionary process.”

The study is part of a research project funded by a grant from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council to the University of St Andrews, “A large- scale experimental study of cultural transmission in chimpanzees”.

The research paper ‘Faithful replication of foraging techniques along cultural transmission chains by chimpanzees and children’ by Victoria Horner, Andrew Whiten, Emma Flynn and Frans de Waal is published online by PNAS and will appear in a later print issue. Dr Horner, of the University of St Andrews, is a Research Affiliate of the Yerkes Center.



For further information, please contact –

Dr Victoria Horner Mobile 001-678-642-7526 Telephone 001-404-727-9071 Email [email protected]


Professor Andrew Whiten Professor of Evolutionary and Developmental Psychology Wardlaw Professor of Psychology School of Psychology, University of St Andrews Telephone 01334-462073 Email [email protected]


Stephanie C. McNicoll Assistant Director, PR and Information Yerkes National Primate Research Center (o) 404.727.9254 (f) 404.727.3108 [email protected]

Images and Video Clips

Video clips and images are available from University of St Andrews Press Office – 01334 462530/467227.


Video Clip 1: Chimpanzee using the ‘lift door’ method to retrieve fruit from the puzzle box. This method was accurately passed along a transmission chain of 6 chimpanzees. Video courtesy of PNAS.

Video Clip 2: Chimpanzee using the alternative ‘slide door’ method to retrieve fruit from the puzzle box. This method was accurately passed along a transmission chain of 5 chimpanzees. Video courtesy of PNAS.

Image 1: Chimpanzee Georgia using the ‘lift door’ method to obtain fruit from a puzzle box. This technique was accurately transmitted down a chain of six chimpanzees. Chimpanzees in a second group, accurately transmitted the alternative ‘slide door’ method down a chain of five individuals. Image courtesy of PNAS.

Image 2: Observational Learning by chimpanzees (digitally manufactured image). Each chimpanzee in a chain of up to six learned the method they saw used to open a food box and passed it on to the next chimpanzee. Here a chimpanzee demonstrates the ‘lift door’ approach. Image by Devyn Carter, Yerkes Center.

Issued by Beattie Media – On behalf of the University of St Andrews For more information, please contact Claire Grainger, Press Officer – 01334 462530, 07730 415 015 or [email protected]; Ref: press releases/chinesewhisp View the latest University news at

Category Research

Related topics

Share this story