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Research Fellows Directory

Rachel Kendal

Dr Rachel Kendal

Research Fellow


University of Durham

Research summary

One significant, yet controversial, development in the social learning field is the claim of ‘culture’ in apes, monkeys, dolphins and whales, that is, that behaviour patterns and knowledge are learned and socially transmitted as traditions. For example, the tools used to get at food and courtship or grooming behaviours differ between chimpanzee populations across Africa, it is thought as a consequence of population-specific traditions. Although claimants have endeavored to show that the behavioural differences are not caused by differences in the chimps’ genes or their environment, this is not easy, largely because there are no methods that are realistically applicable. Consequently, many question the validity of claims for culture in these animals. Psychologists have developed sophisticated experiments to distinguish social and asocial learning but their methods are more suited to the laboratory than for use with wild animals. To address this problem I am developing a new statistical method to enable field researchers to determine the likelihood that the behaviour they see in a population has spread through social rather than asocial learning. The method rests on the assumption that, within a group, social learning will generate a greater than expected similarity in the behaviour (eg. using a long or short twig) used to solve a task (probing for termites). I will apply my novel 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 of evidence for culture in other animals. I hope to develop a software package that researchers can use to determine the likelihood that they have evidence for social learning. This will be important, as it will be very useful in enabling field researchers to determine the likelihood that their findings are attributable to social learning. An understanding of cultural capacities in animals may enlighten us as to the evolution of our own amazing cultural achievements and, accordingly, another aspect of my research is in understanding whether humans and non-humans display the same strategies regarding when they use social information (versus personal information) and from whom they learn.

Grants awarded

Identifying social learning in animal populations: implications for culture

Scheme: Dorothy Hodgkin Fellowship

Dates: Oct 2006 - May 2012

Value: £299,620.97