UK: Mongooses pass on traditions

Researchers have proved that mongooses can pass on traditions, a finding they say provides insight into how complex human culture could have evolved.

Scientists from the University of Exeter's School of Biosciences studied five groups of banded mongooses in Uganda. They observed the animals passing on traditions in the form of foraging preferences from one generation to the next, a practice previously thought to be reserved only to humans and the most intellectually advanced animals such as primates and dolphins.

Dr Corsin Müller, lead author of the study, said the findings showed for the first time that less-advanced animals pass on traditions in the wild, which has important implications for understanding how culture can develop.

"We've shown that the basic mechanism for traditions is already found in animals of very average intellect, like mongooses. If they pass on traditions, there's no reason to suspect most other animals wouldn't have traditions too," he says.

"This is a starting point at which traditions could evolve to become more complex and gives us an insight into how our cultures may have begun. It's a point from which our behaviour could have evolved."

Young mongooses pick out an adult, such as an older sibling, cousin, or uncle, to be their "escort" through infancy.

Müller wonderd if each escort passed on traditions to their pup. With Dr Michael Cant he devised research which would test the tradition theory by focusing on another mongoose trait - their varied eating habits.

When eating prey with hard-shells, such as eggs or beetles, mongooses either bite through the outer shell or smash it on a hard surface. Most will stick exclusively to one method, though others may switch between the two.

The researchers found that mongoose pups generally followed the behaviour they picked up from their escort. Even one year on, the smashers and the biters continued to preferentially display the learned behaviour.