Do captive mandrills invent new gestures?

  • 312 Accesses

  • 17 Citations


Studies of intraspecific behavioral variability have documented cases where behaviors are present in some populations or groups but are absent in others. In some cases these differences cannot be explained by recourse to environmental or genetic variation, and may instead represent “traditions”. Despite many examples of animal traditions in acoustic communication, relatively few examples exist of gestural traditions. Here I report on a study of communication across eight captive groups of mandrills (Mandrillus sphinx) in which a prominent gesture (Hand extension) was unique to two groups. Habitat variability, genetic differences, and sampling bias were not sufficient to account for the gesture’s limited distribution across the study groups. Within the two groups where the gesture did occur only the juveniles in the group performed it, consistently directing it toward adults. Quantitative analysis of the contexts and responses associated with the gesture suggested that juveniles utilized it to provoke adults. Moreover, the gesture appeared to minimize the risk juveniles incurred while inciting adults, suggesting that repeated social interactions shaped the gesture’s form. Interestingly, both the groups where the gesture emerged contained few juveniles. With limited play partners, these juveniles may have resorted to harassing adults as an alternative social play outlet. The creation of this novel gesture may thus be due to the combined influence of a shortage of play partners and of the increased free time for playful social exploration afforded by captivity. Although juveniles frequently “eavesdropped” on dyadic interactions involving the gesture and would subsequently initiate an interaction with the recipient of the gesture, there was no definitive evidence for social transmission; the gesture could instead have been independently invented by each juvenile.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.

Access options

Buy single article

Instant unlimited access to the full article PDF.

US$ 39.95

Price includes VAT for USA

Subscribe to journal

Immediate online access to all issues from 2019. Subscription will auto renew annually.

US$ 99

This is the net price. Taxes to be calculated in checkout.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2
Fig. 3
Fig. 4


  1. Altmann J (1974) Observational study of behavior: sampling methods. Behaviour 49:227–267

  2. Catchpole CK, Slater PJB (1995) Bird song: themes and variations. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

  3. Dugatkin L (1996) Copying and mate choice. In: Heyes CM, Galef BG (eds) Social learning in animals: the roots of culture. Academic, San Diego, pp 85–106

  4. Emory GR (1975) The patterns of interaction between the young males and group members in captive groups of Mandrillus sphinx and Theropithecus gelada. Primates 16:317–334

  5. Feistner, ATC (1989) The behaviour of a social group of mandrills, Mandrillus sphinx. PhD thesis, University of Stirling, UK

  6. Fragaszy DM, Perry S (2003) The biology of traditions: models and evidence. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

  7. Galef B (1996) Social enhancement of food preferences in Norway rats: a brief review. In: Heyes CM, Galef BG (eds) Social learning in animals: the roots of culture. Academic, San Diego, pp 49–64

  8. Heyes CM, Galef BG (1996) Social learning in animals: the roots of culture. Academic, San Diego

  9. Ingmanson EJ (1987) Clapping behavior: non-verbal communication during grooming in a group of captive pygmy chimpanzees. Am J Phys Anthropol 72:173–174

  10. Jouventin P, Pasteur G, Cambefort JP (1977) Observational learning of baboons and avoidance of mimics: exploratory tests. Evolution 31:214–218

  11. Kawai M (1965) Newly acquired pre-cultural behavior of the natural troop of Japanese monkeys on Koshima island. Primates 6:1–30

  12. Kawata K (1980) Notes on comparative behavior in three primate species in captivity. Zoologische Garten 50:209–224

  13. Kummer H (1995) In quest of the sacred baboon: a scientist’s journey. Princeton University Press, Princeton

  14. Kummer H, Goodall J (1985) Conditions of innovative behaviour in primates. Phil Trans Roy Soc Lond B 308:203–214

  15. Kummer H, Kurt F (1965) A comparison of social behavior in captive and wild hamadryas baboons. In: Vagtborg H (ed) The baboon in medical research. University of Texas Press, Austin, pp 65–80

  16. Laidre ME (2005) Honest signaling of intentions: the importance of performance risk, receiver response, and prior knowledge of opponents in the threat displays of mandrills. Behaviour 142:455–476

  17. Laidre ME (2006) Manipulation without mind-reading: information suppression and leakage during food discovery by mandrills (Mandrillus sphinx). Behaviour 143:365–392

  18. Laidre ME, Yorzinski JL (2005) The silent bared-teeth face and the crest-raise of the mandrill (Mandrillus sphinx): a contextual analysis of signal function. Ethology 111:143–157

  19. Laland KN, Hoppitt W (2003) Do animals have culture? Evol Anthropol 12:150–159

  20. Laland K, Williams K (1997) Shoaling generates social learning of foraging information in guppies. Anim Behav 53:1161–1169

  21. Littell RC, Milliken GA, Stroup WW, Wolfinger RD (1996) SAS® system for mixed models. SAS Institute Inc., Cary

  22. Martin P, Bateson P (1993) Measuring behaviour: an introductory guide. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

  23. McGrew WC (1992) Chimpanzee material culture: implications for human evolution. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

  24. McGrew WC (2004) The cultured chimpanzee: reflections on cultural primatology. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

  25. McGrew WC, Tutin CEG (1978) Evidence for a social custom in wild chimpanzees? Man 13:234–251

  26. Mellen JD, Littlewood AP, Barrow BC, Stevens VJ (1981) Individual and social behavior in a captive troop of mandrills (Mandrillus sphinx). Primates 22:206–220

  27. Nishida T (1980) The leaf-clipping display: a newly-discovered expressive gesture in wild chimpanzees. J Hum Evol 9:117–128

  28. Nishida T (1987) Local traditions and cultural transmission. In: Smuts BB, Cheney DL, Seyfarth RM, Wrangham RW, Struhsaker TT (eds) Primate societies. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, pp 462–474

  29. Perry S, Manson JH (2003) Traditions in monkeys. Evol Anthropol 12:71–81

  30. Perry S, Baker M, Fedigan L, Gros-Louis J, Jack K, MacKinnon KC, Manson JH, Panger M, Pyle K, Rose L (2003) Social conventions in wild white-faced capuchin monkeys: evidence for traditions in a Neotropical primate. Curr Anthropol 44:241–268

  31. Rendell L, Whitehead H (2001) Culture in whales and dolphins. Behav Brain Sci 24:309–382

  32. Sapolsky RM, Share LJ (2004) A pacific culture among wild baboons: its emergence and transmission. PLoS Biol 2:534–541

  33. Sherry DF, Galef BG (1990) Social learning without imitation: more about milk bottle opening by birds. Anim Behav 40:987–989

  34. Slater PJB (1986) The cultural transmission of bird song. TREE 1:94–97

  35. Stephenson GR (1973) Testing for group-specific communication patterns in Japanese macaques. In: Menzel EW (ed) Precultural primate behavior (symposium of the 4th international congress of primatology, vol. 1). Karger, Basel, pp 51–75

  36. Tanner JE, Byrne RW (1996) Representation of action through ionic gesture in a captive lowland gorilla. Curr Anthropol 37:162–173

  37. Terkel J (1996) Cultural transmission of feeding behavior in the black rat (Rattus rattus). In: Heyes CM, Galef BG (eds) Social learning in animals: the roots of culture. Academic, San Diego, pp 267–286

  38. Tomasello M, Zuberbühler K (2002) Primate vocal and gestural communication. In: Bekoff M, Allen C, Burghardt GM (eds) The cognitive animal: empirical and theoretical perspectives on animal cognition. MIT Press, Cambridge, pp 293–299

  39. Tomasello M, Call J, Nagell K, Olguin R, Carpenter M (1994) The learning and use of gestural signals by young chimpanzees: a trans-generational study. Primates 35:137–154

  40. Whiten A, Goodall J, McGrew WC, Nishida T, Reynolds V, Sugiyama Y, Tutin CEG, Wrangham RW, Boesch C (1999) Cultures in chimpanzees. Nature 399:682–685

  41. Zahavi A (1977) Reliability in communication systems and the evolution of altruism. In: Stonehouse B, Perrins CM (eds) Evolutionary Ecology. Macmillan, London, pp 253–259

Download references


I thank the Rosamond Gifford Zoo, the Buffalo Zoological Gardens, the Lowry Park Zoo, the Staten Island Zoo, the Centre International de Recherches Médicales, and the Paignton Zoo Environmental Park for making their animals available for study. For comments and discussion I thank Jeanne Altmann, Tim Clutton-Brock, Sarah Hodge, Hans Kummer, Susan Perry, Thomas Seeley, Alex Thornton, Michael Tomasello, Sandra Vehrencamp, and Jessica Yorzinski. Critiques from three anonymous referees helped improve the manuscript. Adam Arcadi introduced me to the Syracuse mandrills and Benjamin Clock helped produce pictures of the gesture. This research complies with the current laws of the countries in which it was performed and it was supported by grants from the Howard Hughes Medical Foundation, the Andrew W. Mellon Fund, the Explorers Club, and by support from Sandra Vehrencamp.

Author information

Correspondence to Mark E. Laidre.

Additional information

An erratum to this article can be found online at

Electronic supplementary material

Below is the link to the electronic supplementary material.

Fig. S1. Video clip of a juvenile female (right) in the Syracuse group directing Hand extension at an adult female. (Note that Fig. 1A derives from this video clip.) (WMV 2.41 Mb)

Fig. S1. Video clip of a juvenile female (right) in the Syracuse group directing Hand extension at an adult female. (Note that Fig. 1A derives from this video clip.) (WMV 2.41 Mb)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Laidre, M.E. Do captive mandrills invent new gestures?. Anim Cogn 11, 179 (2008) doi:10.1007/s10071-007-0121-4

Download citation


  • Innovation
  • Tradition
  • Gestural communication
  • Captivity
  • Mandrillus