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Chimpanzees and bees are capable of complex social learning

Have you ever wondered how humans became so skilled at various tasks? One answer lies in our ability to build upon knowledge passed down through generations, known as cumulative culture

Now, new research suggests that passing along skills is not a talent that is unique to us. Through social learning, bumblebees and chimpanzees can acquire complex skills that would be difficult to master on their own.

Human social behavior

Humans have an advantage over other animals because of our language, tools, problem-solving skills, and ability to learn from each other across generations. Our culture, where knowledge and inventions build on each other over time, allows us to adapt and innovate in ways no other animal can.

Here’s what makes human culture and learning special:


We use complex language not just to talk, but also to think about abstract ideas, make plans, and teach others vast amounts of information. This lets us share ideas, feelings, and instructions in detail, allowing our culture to be richer and deeper.


While other animals use tools, we’re exceptional at inventing, improving, and combining them. Humans have remarkably evolved from simple stone tools to computers and space travel.

Social structures

Human societies are complex, with large groups of unrelated people working together. This is possible because of cultural norms, laws, and institutions that guide our behavior and allow large-scale cooperation.

Building on knowledge

We excel at using knowledge from past generations to make even bigger advancements in science, art, and technology. The “cumulative” aspect lets us innovate quickly and live in almost any environment on Earth.

Bees learn by observation

Scientists from Queen Mary University of London created a special training area where bees could learn to open a box with two steps to get a reward. 

Interestingly, bees couldn’t figure out the box on their own, no matter how long they tried. But, when they watched other bees who had already been trained, they were able to learn how to open the box too. 

This finding surprised the scientists because social learning, where individuals learn by observing others, was previously thought to be a human-exclusive trait. 

Lead researcher Alice Bridges expressed her astonishment. “We were so surprised,” she said, highlighting the significance of their observations in challenging our understanding of animal learning capabilities.

Complex social learning in animals

Alex Thornton is a professor of Cognitive Evolution at the University of Exeter who was not involved in the study. He acknowledged that it was a small sample size.

“But the point is clear – the task was exceptionally hard to learn alone, yet some bees could solve it through social learning,” wrote Dr. Thornton. This suggests that the potential for complex social learning extends beyond humans to other species as well.

The researchers noted that it was the first demonstration of cumulative culture in an invertebrate.

Social learning among chimpanzees

In a similar study, scientists from Utrecht University investigated how chimpanzees learn new skills from each other. They studied 66 chimpanzees in two groups living in Zambia. 

The researchers put a special box with a drawer in the chimpanzees’ enclosure. The box had a hole that needed to be plugged with a wooden ball to get a treat. Wooden balls were scattered around the box.

For three months, the chimpanzees could play with the box however they liked, but none of them figured out how to use it. Then, the scientists trained one chimpanzee in each group to solve the puzzle. 

Learning skills from friends

After this, other chimpanzees in the group started learning how to use the box by watching the trained chimps. In total, 14 chimpanzees learned this new trick. The scientists analyzed their observations to make sure the chimps were really learning from each other. 

The experts found that chimps who watched the trained chimps more often were the most likely to learn the trick themselves. This suggests that chimpanzees pay attention to what their friends are doing and acquire new skills through social learning.

Cumulative culture in animal groups

Animals are smarter than we thought. Scientists are learning more and more about how animals think and solve problems (animal intelligence). They also learn from each other (social learning), which helps them adapt to their environment without having to wait for evolution. 

This ability to share knowledge even builds on itself over time, leading to unique traditions within animal groups (cumulative culture). New information about animal intelligence, social learning, and culture means we need to reevaluate how different humans and animals really are. 

It turns out that learning from others, creating new things, and passing on traditions aren’t exclusive to humans after all. This makes us wonder how much more there is to learn about the animal world, and highlights the importance of protecting these amazing creatures and their cultures.

The studies are published in Nature Human Behaviour and Nature


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