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In wild orangutans social learning is affected by ecology

A new study shows, how food availability could catalyze cultural transmission

The proverb “necessity is the mother of invention” has been used to describe the source from which our cultural evolution springs. After all, need in times of scarcity has forced humans to continually invent new technologies that have driven the remarkable cumulative culture of our species. But an invention only becomes cultural if it is learned and spread by many individuals. In other words, the invention must be socially transmitted. But what are the forces that drive social transmission? A long-term study covering 18 years of data on wild orangutans suggests that the answer can be found in an animal’s environment and the respective resource availability. A team of two Max Planck institutes and Leipzig University looked at how male orangutans learn from others, finding that individuals who grew up in habitats with plentiful food had a higher propensity to attend to social information. This finding demonstrates how an animal’s ecology can impact their opportunities to learn socially, and thus the likelihood that a new behavior can become an innovation with cultural properties.

© Safriadi / SUAQ Project