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Chimps Have Culture Like Humans: Tool Use in Chimpanzee Groups

First Posted: Jul 23, 2015 08:55 AM EDT

Chimps may, in fact, have culture. Scientists have discovered tool-length "subcultures" in chimpanzees that provide striking parallel with cultural differences observed between adjacent groups in human societies.

The method traditionally used to establish the presence of culture in wild animals compares behavioral variation across populations and excludes all behavioral patterns that can be explained by genetic or environmental differences across sites. However, it's impossible to conclusively rule out the influence of genetics.

In this latest study, though, the researchers compared neighboring chimp groups living under similar environmental conditions, which allowed for the investigation of fine scale cultural differences, while keeping the genetics constant.

More specifically, the researchers compared the length of tools used for "ant-dipping" between two neighboring communities. Dipping for army ants is a good example of culture in chimps; it involves poking a stick into an ant mount to extract the highly aggressive army ants.

In the end, the researchers found that one group had significantly longer tools than the other group, despite identical army ant species availability. This tool length difference, in other words, appears to be cultural.

"Given the close evolutionary relationship between chimpanzees and humans, insights into what drives cultural diversification in our closest living relatives will in turn shed light on how cultural differences emerge and are maintained between adjacent groups in human societies," said Kathelijne Koops, one of the researchers, in a news release. She continued by saying, "Our findings highlight how cultural knowledge can generate small-scale culture diversification in neighboring groups."

The findings reveal a bit more about how even animals can have culture. The differences seen in the chimps indicate that these groups socially interact in different ways.

The findings are published in the journal Scientific Reports.

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