Observational learning in orangutan cultural transmission chains
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Observational Learning in Orangutan Cultural Transmission Chains. Marietta Dindo, Tara Stoinski, and Andrew Whiten. A Presentation by Madeline Mow and Briana Schmidt. Understanding Culture across Species.

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Observational Learning in Orangutan Cultural Transmission Chains

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Observational Learning in Orangutan Cultural Transmission Chains

Marietta Dindo, Tara Stoinski, and Andrew Whiten

A Presentation by Madeline Mow and Briana Schmidt

Understanding Culture across Species

  • The Oxford English Dictionary summarizes “culture” to mean the “distinctive ideas, customs, social behavior, products, or way of life of a particular society, people, or period.”

  • With growing evidence for unique cultural traditions in other species, the exact definition of “culture” has been the topic of recent debate.

  • A range of definitions are currently in use to describe a wide variety of aspects relating to culture in non-human animals.

Understanding Culture across Species

Why Orangutans?

  • Orangutans have social, yet solitary behavior.

    • There aren’t that many opportunities to learn from others.

  • Cultural transmission has been seen more prevalently in a mother-infant context.

  • There’s not much experimental evidence in the wild.


  • Seven males and four females from Zoo Atlanta were used.

  • Two of the males (Allen and Chantek) were trained as models.

  • The orangutans ranged from 2 to 38 years old.

Apparatus and Procedure

  • The model was trained to open the box by sliding or lifting.

    • 10 trial sessions.

  • The model demonstrated the method in front of an observer.

    • 20 trial sessions.

  • The observer moved to another cage for the test session.

    • 20 trial sessions.

  • The test session was terminated if nothing happened after 15 min.

  • After the test session, the subject became the model for the next group member.

Orangutan Copy Cats


  • In the lift chain, the subjects were not all from the same social group.

    • The researchers used videotaped demonstrations for observation sessions.


  • The third observer was dominant over the demonstrator.

    • There was a mesh barrier between the two for the first 10 trials.

  • The last subject did not try to open the box for 15 minutes, so the trial was terminated.


  • In the lift group, all subjects successfully lifted the door 20/20 trials.

  • In the slide group, only half of the subjects slid the door open 20/20 trials.

    • The third subject only completed 19/20 trials correctly.

    • The fourth subject did not complete his trials with either method.


  • Results confirm orangutans are capable of learning novel foraging behaviors by observing the actions of others.

    • The experiment also shows orangutans can learn from video-taped demonstrations.

  • Previous studies on mimicry in orangutans show less faithful transmission of knowledge between individuals.

    • High accuracy may be due to the simplicity of the task.

Discussion Questions

  • Does such a simple behavior as demonstrated by these groups of orangutans deserve to be referred to as “culture”?

  • Which definition of culture mentioned at the beginning of the presentation best describes the behaviors of the orangutans in the experiment by Dindo, Stoinski, and Whiten?

  • Assuming the presence of culture in other species, is the value and “uniqueness” of human culture undermined?

    • Should humans intervene in wild populations to conserve particular cultural groups, instead of the species as a whole?

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