Simian socialising at Bethnal Green museum

Monkeys learning watching others. Pic: Erica van de Waal

Monkeys learning watching others. Pic: Erica van de Waal

The old adage “it’s not what you know but who you know” rings just as true in the monkey world as it does in our lives.

The “Animal Cultures: Nature’s Second Inheritance System” exhibition this weekend shows that cultural learning is widespread within the animal kingdom.

The exhibition is part of the Great British Biosciences Festival in London sponsored by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council held at Museum Gardens near the V&A Museum of Childhood on Bethnal Green.

Visitors will get the opportunity to learn about “local traditions” among animal populations such as social customs and eating habits as well as experience learning through the eyes of wild animals such as monkeys, whales and meerkats.

The research has been carried out by academics from the Universities of St Andrews, Newcastle and Exeter, the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland and Edinburgh Zoo.

Professor Andrew Whiten of the School of Psychology & Neuroscience at St Andrews said: “It’s easy to think of human culture as uniquely isolating our species from nature and from basic evolutionary processes… [our] research has instead revealed cultural processes of varying complexity in primates, birds and fish.”

“Our discoveries highlight a potent new ‘second inheritance system’ in animals that complements the primary genetic one, illuminates human cultural evolution, and has further implications for welfare and conservation.”

It has been found that there are varying degrees of cultural differences between animals as well as remarkable instances of immigrant animals immersing themselves into foreign cultures.

A variety of interactive activities are available to visitors. They can take on the role of chimpanzees to see how they learn new tool use from other chimps; try acquiring New Caledonian Crow grub-fishing techniques; watch how new hunting skills used by predatory whales spread across a community and see how meerkats learn from their parents and peers.

The Great British Biosciences Festival will run from 14 – 16 November, and has many other exhibitions such as: “How do we catch infections?”, “A twisted bug’s life”, “Antibiotic hunters” and “The complex life of sugars”.

Part of BBSRC’s 20th anniversary celebrations, it is free of charge and brings together over 20 exhibits that have been on display across the UK in 2014.

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