Dr Rachel Kendal

Dorothy Hodgkin Fellow
Department of Anthropology, Durham University
Identifying social learning in animal populations: implications for culture

Rachel Kendal

“The claim that what we term ‘culture’ exists within communities of apes, monkeys, dolphins and whales – in other words, whether specific behaviours are the result of genetic programming, individual learning or social learning from others - is controversial yet significant.

It is thought, for example, that the variation in many behaviours (from grooming to foraging techniques) between chimpanzee populations across Africa is a consequence of social learning. However, many people question the validity of claims for culture in these animals. Although previous researchers have tried to show that the behavioural patterns are not caused by genetic programming, there have been, until recently, no methods that are realistically applicable. Psychologists have developed sophisticated experiments to identify the way animals can learn skills, but their methods are more suited to the laboratory than the wild.

I am developing a new statistical method to determine the likelihood that the behaviour seen in a population has spread through social learning. I believe that, within a population, a greater than expected similarity in the behaviour used to solve a task, for example choosing a long or short twig to probe for termites, will indicate that these behaviour patterns are acquired through social rather than individual learning (assuming roles for genetics or ecology have been ruled out).

I will apply my method to data collected by researchers of chimpanzees, capuchin monkeys, dolphins and gorillas. If I find evidence for social learning, we can be increasingly confident in our claims for evidence of culture in other animals that may provide insight into our own culture and also enhance the conservation of such species.”

Read more about Dr Rachel Kendal's work at Durham University.