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Culture and geographic variation in orangutan behavior


Krützen, M; Willems, E P; van Schaik, C P (2011). Culture and geographic variation in orangutan behavior. Current Biology, 21(21):1808-1812.

Abstract

Although geographic variation in an organism's traits is often seen as a consequence of selection on locally adaptive genotypes accompanied by canalized development [1], developmental plasticity may also play a role [2, 3], especially in behavior [4]. Behavioral plasticity includes both individual learning and social learning of local innovations ("culture"). Cultural plasticity is the undisputed and dominant explanation for geographic variation in human behavior. It has recently also been suggested to hold for various primates and birds [5], but this proposition has been met with widespread skepticism [6-8]. Here, we analyze parallel long-term studies documenting extensive geographic variation in behavioral ecology, social organization, and putative culture of orangutans [9] (genus Pongo). We show that genetic differences among orangutan populations explain only very little of the geographic variation in behavior, whereas environmental differences explain much more, highlighting the importance of developmental plasticity. Moreover, variation in putative cultural variants is explained by neither genetic nor environmental differences, corroborating the cultural interpretation. Thus, individual and cultural plasticity provide a plausible pathway toward local adaptation in long-lived organisms such as great apes and formed the evolutionary foundation upon which human culture was built.

Although geographic variation in an organism's traits is often seen as a consequence of selection on locally adaptive genotypes accompanied by canalized development [1], developmental plasticity may also play a role [2, 3], especially in behavior [4]. Behavioral plasticity includes both individual learning and social learning of local innovations ("culture"). Cultural plasticity is the undisputed and dominant explanation for geographic variation in human behavior. It has recently also been suggested to hold for various primates and birds [5], but this proposition has been met with widespread skepticism [6-8]. Here, we analyze parallel long-term studies documenting extensive geographic variation in behavioral ecology, social organization, and putative culture of orangutans [9] (genus Pongo). We show that genetic differences among orangutan populations explain only very little of the geographic variation in behavior, whereas environmental differences explain much more, highlighting the importance of developmental plasticity. Moreover, variation in putative cultural variants is explained by neither genetic nor environmental differences, corroborating the cultural interpretation. Thus, individual and cultural plasticity provide a plausible pathway toward local adaptation in long-lived organisms such as great apes and formed the evolutionary foundation upon which human culture was built.

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Additional indexing

Item Type:Journal Article, refereed, original work
Communities & Collections:07 Faculty of Science > Department of Anthropology
Dewey Decimal Classification:300 Social sciences, sociology & anthropology
Language:English
Date:2011
Deposited On:06 Jan 2012 11:00
Last Modified:05 Apr 2016 15:14
Publisher:Elsevier
ISSN:0960-9822
Free access at:Publisher DOI. An embargo period may apply.
Publisher DOI:10.1016/j.cub.2011.09.017
PubMed ID:22018539
Permanent URL: http://doi.org/10.5167/uzh-52869

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