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Making culture from scratch.

Chimpanzees living in Mahale Mountains National Park, Tanzania, exhibit regular behaviors that field workers view as learned traditions. For instance, low-ranking adult chimps regularly clean the hair of their high-status comrades in a practice known as social grooming.

A research team led by Linda E Marchant of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, reports a newly observed tradition among Mahale chimps. The researchers call it the "social scratch."

Simply put, some chimps scratch others, usually on the back. Chimps scratch themselves, of course, but they rarely do so while giving or receiving a social scratch. Instead, social scratching typically accompanies social grooming. Adolescent and adult males, especially those regarded as dominant in the group, get scratched the most. Females sometimes scratch their nursing infants. Such activity may help to ease social tensions, Marchant suggests.

Observations of a group of 53 Mahale. chimps from July 1996 to May 1997 identified 31 of them as social scratchers. In that time, 520 social-scratching bouts were recorded.

Thus far, she notes, social scratching has not been reported for any of several other long-studied chimp populations. Marchant regards this as further evidence that groups of wild chimps devise unique cultural traditions that they pass from one generation to the next (SN: 12/12/98, p. 374).

"The recognition of social customs provides a common identity for each chimp community," Marchant contends. "This furthers our understanding of what constitutes culture."
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Title Annotation:social scratching of chimpanzees
Author:Bower, Bruce
Publication:Science News
Article Type:Brief Article
Date:May 15, 1999
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