All over the world, people greet, talk, eat, dance and celebrate according to their own cultural practices. We’re not the only species with such traditions. Chimpanzees have rich cultural traditions that determine how they forage for food, communicate, groom each other and wield tools. Other species with their own local customs, including orang utans, monkeys, dolphins and killer whales, are all united by their vaunted intelligence. But another mammal with a comparatively smaller brain has just joined this cultural club – the banded mongoose.
Corsin Muller from the University of Exeter gave wild mongooses a plastic shell containing some food (like a reverse Kinder egg). He found that adults preferred to break into the shells using one of two possible tactics, and that they passed on these traditions to their pups.
For humans, our culture is a massive part of our identity, from the way we dress, speak and cook, to the social norms that govern how we interact with our peers. Our culture stems from our ability to pick up new behaviours through imitation, and we are so innately good at this that we often take it for granted.
We now know that chimpanzees have a similar ability, and like us, different groups have their own distinct cultures and traditions.
Now, Andrew Whiten from the University of St Andrews has published the first evidence that groups of chimpanzees can pick up new traditions from each other. In an experimental game of Chinese whispers, he seeded new behaviours in one group and saw that they readily spread to others.