Skills used in food processing by vervet monkeys, Cecropithecus aethiops
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The principle objective of this study was to describe and record all the gathering and processing skills of vervet monkeys for a variety of different foods. The study was conducted on two troops of vervet monkeys living in the Palmiet Valley, Natal, South Africa. There was sufficient data to analyze the processing of four foods of differing complexity; termites, leaf shoots, sugarcane and fruit. Milton (1988) proposed that the intellectual difficulties of finding and processing food led to the evolution of intelligence. In the only study of food processing skill, Byrne and Byrne (1993) showed that gorillas use a hierarchical organization perhaps reflecting imitation at the program-level. The question to be asked in this study was, would vervets also organize their processing into a few techniques for specific foods and would it then be possible to identify learning mechanisms used by the monkeys? The current literature suggests that monkeys use simple solutions to their foraging problems, there is no evidence for imitation of feeding skills in monkeys. At the most detailed level of analysis, grip types used in the processing of foods were described. Existing definitions in the literature were not adequate to explain the monkeys' hand use, and new definitions were added. High individual idiosyncrasy was a feature of grip usage across all four foods, although firm conclusions are not possible because of the known effects of sample size. Cluster analysis was considered the most appropriate method to look at individual variation in grip usage. There was an age effect for leaf shoots and sugarcane, with juveniles restricting their usage to the necessary core grips. The hand preferences for individuals across tasks gave no support for the theory of the evolution of laterality presented by MacNeilage et al. (1987). There was a low degree of individual preference for five out of six tasks, with only termite feeding showing a hand preference. There was some evidence for a right hand reaching, left hand manipulation preference, opposite to MacNeilage's prediction. There was an age effect in direction and strength for two tasks, adults having a stronger left hand preference in contrast to a weaker right hand preference in juveniles for leaf shoots and large fruit. Matrices of the transitional probabilities between two elements, were used to construct the common pathways of processing skill for each individual. Flow diagrams were then created to represent the minimal decision processes used by the monkeys. The diagrams were used to compare individuals' choice of pathways. Cluster analysis was used to analyze pathway choice in detail; none of a variety of independent variables could explain the high individual variation. Whether whole foods or just parts of foods were eaten did explain some of the variance for sugarcane and fruit. The most parsimonious explanation is that social enhancement resulting in trial and error learning best described individuals' acquisition of processing skill, although a number of other factors may explain the observed results.
Thesis, PhD Doctor of Philosophy
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