When it comes to finding a role model, vervet monkeys prefer the women in their lives. Researchers have found that the silver-furred primates imitate a useful new skill, such as opening a box with a treat inside, only when the monkey demonstrating it is female.
Vervet monkeys live in territorial groups of 10 to 50 individuals, which include adult males and females, juveniles, and infants. Females stay in their native group for life, whereas males join other groups when they become sexually mature, at about 4 years old. Typically, an alpha male dominates the group, although among females in the same group there is also a dominant individual. Males ascend the ranks by fighting, whereas females pass their status down to their oldest daughter.
Scientists have long wondered whether groups like these harbor some sort of culture. That is, can individuals pass down certain behaviors from generation to generation?
Erica van de Waal had a chance to probe this question at the Loskop Dam Nature Reserve in South Africa. A doctoral student at the University of Neuchâtel in Switzerland, she noticed that groups of vervet monkeys had strikingly different ways of resolving arguments. One group would use a scapegoat, whereas in another group the monkeys would console the losing party to keep the peace. She wondered whether ecological differences were responsible, or whether a particular strategy had spread among individuals of one group.
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