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Department of Anthropology

Academic Staff

Publication details for Dr Jeremy Kendal

Kendal, R.L., Kendal, J.R., Hoppitt, W. & Laland, K.N. (2009). Identifying Social Learning in Animal Populations: A New ‘Option-Bias’ Method. PLoS ONE 4(8): e6541.

Author(s) from Durham


Studies of natural animal populations reveal widespread evidence for the diffusion of novel behaviour patterns, and for intra- and inter-population variation in behaviour. However, claims that these are manifestations of animal ‘culture’ remain controversial because alternative explanations to social learning remain difficult to refute. This inability to identify social learning in social settings has also contributed to the failure to test evolutionary hypotheses concerning the social learning strategies that animals deploy.

Methodology/Principal Findings
We present a solution to this problem, in the form of a new means of identifying social learning in animal populations. The method is based on the well-established premise of social learning research, that - when ecological and genetic differences are accounted for - social learning will generate greater homogeneity in behaviour between animals than expected in its absence. Our procedure compares the observed level of homogeneity to a sampling distribution generated utilizing randomization and other procedures, allowing claims of social learning to be evaluated according to consensual standards. We illustrate the method on data from groups of monkeys provided with novel two-option extractive foraging tasks, demonstrating that social learning can indeed be distinguished from unlearned processes and asocial learning, and revealing that the monkeys only employed social learning for the more difficult tasks. The method is further validated against published datasets and through simulation, and exhibits higher statistical power than conventional inferential statistics.

The method is potentially a significant technological development, which could prove of considerable value in assessing the validity of claims for culturally transmitted behaviour in animal groups. It will also be of value in enabling investigation of the social learning strategies deployed in captive and natural animal populations.