Strong social networks turn squirrel monkeys into trendsetters

Researchers from the University of St Andrews, through their new study, have revealed how strong social networks could be linked to trendsetting; not just in humans, but also in squirrel monkeys.

By combining social network analysis with some traditional experiments, the researchers were able to strike a link between strong social networks and trendsetting behavior in squirrel monkeys.

"Our study shows that innovations do not just spread randomly in primate groups but, as in humans, are shaped by the monkeys' social networks," lead author of the study, Andrew Whiten, explained. The squirrel monkeys were specifically selected for the study owing to their natural inquisitiveness.

The researchers determined the strength of social networks of the squirrel monkeys by recording the time they spent near the 'artificial fruits' that could be modified and manipulated to extract food rewards. Statistics revealed that some monkeys in particular, were situated at the heart of the social network, while some others were not.

The 'artificial fruits,' which were used to tempt the monkeys, could be opened in two different ways- one, by lifting a latch on the front, or second, by pivoting the fruit from side to side.

The researchers trained the alpha male in both the groups (with strong social networks and without) to open the fruit in different ways. They then sent the monkeys back into their groups to see which method of opening the fruit managed to become predominant.

They noticed that the monkeys with the strongest social networks picked up the new method to open the fruits more easily, and their method was more easily and successfully picked up by the other monkeys, making them what we could call a trendsetter.

"If there are subgroups within the network, then what appear to be mixed behaviors at the group level could in fact be different behaviors for different subgroups -- what could be called subcultures," Whiten added.

The researchers aim to extend their study further and learn more about the squirrel monkeys in different contexts.

The findings of this study are now published in Current Biology. 

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