Behavioral variation in gorillas: Evidence of potential cultural traits

Martha M. Robbins, Chieko Ando, Katherine A. Fawcett, Cyril C. Grueter, Daniela Hedwig, Yuji Iwata, Jessica L. Lodwick, Shelly Masi, Roberta Salmi, Tara S. Stoinski, Angelique Todd, Veronica Vercellio, Juichi Yamagiwa

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    51 Citations (Scopus)


    The question of whether any species except humans exhibits culture has generated much debate, partially due to the difficulty of providing conclusive evidence from observational studies in the wild. A starting point for demonstrating the existence of culture that has been used for many species including chimpanzees and orangutans is to show that there is geographic variation in the occurrence of particular behavioral traits inferred to be a result of social learning and not ecological or genetic influences. Gorillas live in a wide variety of habitats across Africa and they exhibit flexibility in diet, behavior, and social structure. Here we apply the 'method of exclusion' to look for the presence/absence of behaviors that could be considered potential cultural traits in well-habituated groups from five study sites of the two species of gorillas. Of the 41 behaviors considered, 23 met the criteria of potential cultural traits, of which one was foraging related, nine were environment related, seven involved social interactions, five were gestures, and one was communication related. There was a strong positive correlation between behavioral dissimilarity and geographic distance among gorilla study sites. Roughly half of all variation in potential cultural traits was intraspecific differences (i.e. variability among sites within a species) and the other 50% of potential cultural traits were differences between western and eastern gorillas. Further research is needed to investigate if the occurrence of these traits is influenced by social learning. These findings emphasize the importance of investigating cultural traits in African apes and other species to shed light on the origin of human culture.

    Original languageEnglish
    Article numbere0160483
    Number of pages18
    JournalPLoS One
    Issue number9
    Publication statusPublished - 1 Sep 2016


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