Stick-Weaving: Innovative Behavior in Tamarins (Saguinus oedipus)

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Some captive cotton-top tamarins spontaneously weave sticks in the mesh of their enclosures so that the stick is lodged between two mesh openings. Sticks are broken from natural branches placed in the enclosures and often modified by biting them in the center before weaving through the mesh. To investigate this further, we systematically surveyed all animals in our colony and found that all successful stick-weaving tamarins were descendants from only 2 of the 16 breeding groups contributing to the colony membership at the time of surveying or were the mates of these descendants, suggesting stick-weaving is a socially learned behavior. Successful stick-weavers were presented with pipe cleaners, soda straws, and wooden dowels to see if they would generalize stick-weaving to novel objects. Seven of 10 animals successfully wove with straws or pipe cleaners, showing that they could generalize the behavior to objects that were physically different but had the same affordances as the sticks. Data from a father-daughter pair suggest a form of coaching. Innovative behavior is needed for the emergence of culture with subsequent social transmission. Although innovative behavior in primates is mainly associated with foraging and is more likely to occur among males, stick-weaving has no obvious reward and appeared equally in both sexes. Stick-weaving behavior and its probable social transmission across generations suggest the possibility of cultural traditions emerging in this species.

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