Food neophobia and social learning opportunities in great apes

Erik Gustafsson, Michel Saint Jalme, Marie-claude Bomsel, Sabrina Krief

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Finding food resources and maintaining a balanced diet are major concerns for all animals. A compromise between neophobia and neophilia is hypothesised to enable animals to enlarge their diet while limiting the risk of poisoning. However, little is known about how primates respond to novel food items and whether their use is socially transmitted. By comparing how four different species of great apes respond to novel food items, we investigated how differences in physiology (digestive tract size and microbial content), habitats (predictability of food availability), and social systems (group size and composition) affect their response toward novelty. We presented two familiar foods, one novel fruit, four novel aromatic plants from herbal medicine, and kaolin to captive chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes), western gorillas (Gorilla gorilla), Bornean orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus) and Sumatran orangutans (Pongo abelii). We recorded smelling, approach-taste delays, ingestion, interindividual observations, and food transfers with continuous sampling. We found that behaviors differed between the apes: chimpanzees were the most cautious species and observed their conspecifics handling the items more frequently than the other apes. Close observations and food transfers were extremely rare in gorillas in comparison to orangutans and chimpanzees. We suggest that a low neophobia level reflects an adaptive response to digestive physiological features in gorillas and to unpredictable food availability in orangutans. Social interactions appeared to be predominant in chimpanzees and in both orangutan species to overcome food neophobia. They reflect higher social tolerance and more opportunities for social learning and cultural transmission in a feeding context.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1037-1071
Number of pages35
JournalInternational Journal of Primatology
Issue number5
Early online date18 Sept 2014
Publication statusPublished - 1 Oct 2014
Externally publishedYes


  • Bornean orangutans
  • Diet
  • Chimpanzees
  • Novel food
  • Sumatran orangutans
  • Western gorillas


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