Dissecting the Mechanisms of Squirrel Monkey (Saimiri boliviensis) Social Learning

Lydia M. Hopper, Lincoln Park Zoo
AN Holmes, University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center
LE Williams, University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center
Sarah F. Brosnan, Georgia State University

Originally Published in:

PeerJ, 1 e13. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.7717/peerj.13


Although the social learning abilities of monkeys have been well documented, this research has only focused on a few species. Furthermore, of those that also incorporated dissections of social learning mechanisms, the majority studied either capuchins (Cebus apella) or marmosets (Callithrix jacchus). To gain a broader understanding of how monkeys gain new skills, we tested squirrel monkeys (Saimiri boliviensis) which have never been studied in tests of social learning mechanisms. To determine whether S. boliviensis can socially learn, we ran “open diffusion” tests with monkeys housed in two social groups (N D 23). Over the course of 10 20-min sessions, the monkeys in each group observed a trained group member retrieving a mealworm from a bidirectional task (the “Slide-box”). Two thirds (67%) of these monkeys both learned how to operate the Slide-box and they also moved the door significantly more times in the direction modeled by the trained demonstrator than the alternative direction. To tease apart the underlying social learning mechanisms we ran a series of three control conditions with 35 squirrel monkeys that had no previous experience with the Slide-box. The first replicated the experimental open diffusion sessions but without the inclusion of a trained model, the second was a no-information control with dyads of monkeys, and the third was a ‘ghost’ display shown to individual monkeys. The first two controls tested for the importance of social support (mere presence effect) and the ghost display showed the affordances of the task to the monkeys. The monkeys showed a certain level of success in the group control (54% of subjects solved the task on one or more occasions) and paired controls (28% were successful) but none were successful in the ghost control.We propose that the squirrel monkeys’ learning, observed in the experimental open diffusion tests, can be best described by a combination of social learning mechanisms in concert; in this case, those mechanisms are most likely object movement reenactment and social facilitation. We discuss the interplay of these mechanisms and how they related to learning shown by other primate species.