Untrained  chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes schweinfurthii) fail to imitate novel actions

Claudio Tennie*, Josep Call, Michael Tomasello

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

87 Citations (Scopus)
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Background: Social learning research in apes has focused on social learning in the technical (problem solving) domain - an approach that confounds action and physical information. Successful subjects in such studies may have been able to perform target actions not as a result of imitation learning but because they had learnt some technical aspect, for example, copying the movements of an apparatus (i.e., different forms of emulation learning).

Methods: Here we present data on action copying by non-enculturated and untrained chimpanzees when physical information is removed from demonstrations. To date, only one such study (on gesture copying in a begging context) has been conducted - with negative results. Here we have improved this methodology and have also added non-begging test situations (a possible confound of the earlier study). Both familiar and novel actions were used as targets. Prior to testing, a trained conspecific demonstrator was rewarded for performing target actions in view of observers. All but one of the tested chimpanzees already failed to copy familiar actions. When retested with a novel target action, also the previously successful subject failed to copy - and he did so across several contexts.

Conclusion: Chimpanzees do not seem to copy novel actions, and only some ever copy familiar ones. Due to our having tested only non-enculturated and untrained chimpanzees, the performance of our test subjects speak more than most other studies of the general (dis-)ability of chimpanzees to copy actions, and especially novel actions.

Original languageEnglish
Article number41548
Number of pages19
JournalPLoS One
Issue number8
Publication statusPublished - 8 Aug 2012


  • Cumulative Culture
  • Enculturated Chimpanzees
  • Intelligence Hypothesis
  • Social Cognition
  • Wild Chimpanzees
  • Tool-use
  • Traditions
  • Children
  • Apes
  • Transmission


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