Testing the individual and social learning abilities of task-naive captive chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes sp.) in a nut-cracking task

Damien Neadle, Elisa Bandini, Claudio Tennie

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


    Nut-cracking is often cited as one of the most complex behaviours observed in wild chimpanzees. However, the cognitive mechanisms behind its acquisition are still debated. The current null hypothesis is that the form of nut-cracking behaviour relies on variants of social learning, with some researchers arguing, more precisely, that copying variants of social learning mechanisms are necessary. However, to date, very few experiments have directly investigated the potentially sufficient role of individual learning in explaining the behavioural form of nut-cracking. Despite this, the available data provides some evidence for the spontaneous acquisition of nut-cracking by chimpanzees; later group acquisition was then found to be at least facilitated by (unspecified) variants of social learning. The latter findings are in line with both suggested hypotheses, i.e., that copying social learning is required and that other (non-copying) social learning mechanisms are at play. Here we present the first study which focused (initially) on the role of individual learning for the acquisition of the nut-cracking behavioural form in chimpanzees. We tested task-na�ve chimpanzees (N = 13) with an extended baseline condition to examine whether the behaviour would emerge spontaneously. After the baseline condition (which was unsuccessful), we tested for the role of social learning by providing social information in a step-wise fashion, culminating in a full action demonstration of nut-cracking by a human demonstrator (this last condition made it possible for the observers to copy all actions underlying the behaviour). Despite the opportunities to individually and/or socially learn nut-cracking, none of the chimpanzees tested here cracked nuts using tools in any of the conditions in our study; thus, providing no conclusive evidence for either competing hypothesis. We conclude that this failure was the product of an interplay of factors, including behavioural conservatism and the existence of a potential sensitive learning period for nut-cracking in chimpanzees. The possibility remains that nut-cracking is a behaviour that chimpanzees can individually learn. However, this behaviour might only be acquired when chimpanzees are still inside their sensitive learning period, and when ecological and developmental conditions allow for it. The possibility remains that nut-cracking is an example of a culture dependent trait in non-human great apes. Recommendations for future research projects to address this question are considered.
    Original languageEnglish
    Publication statusPublished (VoR) - 10 Mar 2020


    • Social learning
    • Chimpanzee
    • Individual learning
    • Sensitive learning period
    • Nut-cracking
    • Zone of latent solutions
    • Culture
    • Tool use
    • Copying
    • Pan troglodytes


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