Monkey see, monkey do is the old saying, and new research shows that if a female monkey does it, a male monkey will likely follow. The BBC reports that a team of scientists from the University of Neuchatel in Switzerland studied six neighboring groups of wild vervet monkeys in South Africa's Loskop Dam Nature Reserve. They found the monkeys were better able to learn a task if they saw a female monkey do it first.
The project was simple. Researchers constructed boxes and filled them with fruit. The boxes had doors on each differently colored end. The biologists blocked one of the doors so the box could only be opened one way to access the fruit. They had a dominant male and a dominant female each open the box for a group. The researchers allowed the monkeys to learn how to open the boxes through trial and error and found that other monkeys were far more likely to successfully open the fruit box if their demonstrator was female.
Erica van de Waal was the lead biologist on the project. As she told the BBC, "We found that bystanders paid significantly more attention to female than male models …This seemed to be the only factor influencing this social learning."
Why do the female monkeys command more authority than their male peers? Experts point out that while males will find mates in other groups, the females tend to stick to the groups in which they were born. This makes the females stronger core members of their groups and more knowledgeable about local food sources.
Van de Waal told the BBC that this experiment can give insight into other stable living groups, such as humans. As she concludes, "To our knowledge, [this is] the first experimental field evidence for social learning in primates. Experiments on social learning have been conducted mainly in captivity, and it is time to know if the results are the same on wild animals."
For further reading: Monkeys learn from females