Mongooses Inherit Behavior From Role Models Rather Than Parents

Summary: According to researchers, young mongoose learn their behavior from their ‘escort’ role models, not their genetic parents.

Source: University of Exeter.

Young mongooses learn lifelong habits from role models rather than inheriting them from genetic parents, new research shows. Banded mongooses live in social groups where pups are consistently cared for one-to-one by a single adult known as an “escort” – not their mother or father.

They develop “niche” diets and, by studying these, University of Exeter researchers showed pups inherit the behaviour of their escort, rather than parents.

The findings offer a fascinating insight into one of the great puzzles of evolution – how diversity persists rather than disappearing with passing generations.

“It was a big surprise to discover that foraging behaviour learned in the first three months of life lasts a lifetime,” said Professor Michael Cant, of the Centre for Ecology and Conservation on the University of Exeter’s Penryn Campus in Cornwall.

“This is pretty remarkable, since we have no evidence that pups and escorts preferentially hang out together after pups become independent.

“Cultural inheritance, the transmission of socially learned information across generations, is a huge influence on human behaviour: we behave the way we do not just because of our genes but also because of what we learn from parents, teachers and cultural role models.

“It is less well appreciated that cultural inheritance is a major force shaping behaviour in a wide range of non-human animals, from insects to apes – and mongooses.”

To explore the influence of escorts on eating habits, the researchers chemically analysed the whiskers of individual mongooses.

The findings help explain how diverse behaviour persists in nature.

Early critics of Darwin’s theory of natural selection argued that, if his theory was correct, the result should be the erosion of the very variation he suggested as the engine of evolution.

a baby mongoose and its escort
This is a mongoose escorting. image is credited to Harry Marshall.

The genetic reasons why this does not happen have long been understood, but the same criticism could be made of cultural inheritance: when everyone learns from the same teacher, or where each individual learns from everyone, variation should disappear.

But the new research on mongooses shows that where individuals learn from their own personal teacher, cultural inheritance can work to maintain diversity.

“Cultural inheritance is usually expected to lead to uniformity within groups,” said Dr Harry Marshall of the Centre for Research in Ecology, Evolution and Behaviour at the University of Roehampton, a co-author of the study.

“But our work confirms a classic theoretical prediction that where individuals learn from their own personal teacher, cultural inheritance can work to maintain diversity.”

The paper, published in the journal Current Biology, is entitled: “Decoupling of genetic and cultural inheritance in a wild mammal.”

About this neuroscience research article

Source: Alex Morrison – University of Exeter
Publisher: Organized by
Image Source: image is credited to Harry Marshall.
Original Research: Open access research for “Decoupling of Genetic and Cultural Inheritance in a Wild Mammal” by Catherine E. Sheppard, Harry H. Marshall, Richard Inger, Faye J. Thompson, Emma I.K. Vitikainen, Sam Barker, Hazel J. Nichols, David A. Wells, Robbie A. McDonald, and Michael A. Cant in Current Biology. Published May 24 2018.

Cite This Article

[cbtabs][cbtab title=”MLA”]University of Exeter “Mongooses Inherit Behavior From Role Models Rather Than Parents.” NeuroscienceNews. NeuroscienceNews, 29 May 2018.
<>.[/cbtab][cbtab title=”APA”]University of Exeter (2018, May 29). Mongooses Inherit Behavior From Role Models Rather Than Parents. NeuroscienceNews. Retrieved May 29, 2018 from[/cbtab][cbtab title=”Chicago”]University of Exeter “Mongooses Inherit Behavior From Role Models Rather Than Parents.” (accessed May 29, 2018).[/cbtab][/cbtabs]


Decoupling of Genetic and Cultural Inheritance in a Wild Mammal

•Young banded mongooses inherit their foraging niche from cultural role models
•Cultural inheritance occurs in the first few months of life, but lasts a lifetime
•One-to-one cultural inheritance can maintain behavioral diversity within groups

Cultural inheritance, the transmission of socially learned information across generations, is a non-genetic, “second inheritance system” capable of shaping phenotypic variation in humans and many non-human animals. Studies of wild animals show that conformity and biases toward copying particular individuals can result in the rapid spread of culturally transmitted behavioral traits and a consequent increase in behavioral homogeneity within groups and populations. These findings support classic models of cultural evolution, which predict that many-to-one or one-to-many transmission erodes within-group variance in culturally inherited traits. However, classic theory also predicts that within-group heterogeneity is preserved when offspring each learn from an exclusive role model. We tested this prediction in a wild mammal, the banded mongoose (Mungos mungo), in which offspring are reared by specific adult carers that are not their parents, providing an opportunity to disentangle genetic and cultural inheritance of behavior. We show using stable isotope analysis that young mongooses inherit their adult foraging niche from cultural role models, not from their genetic parents. As predicted by theory, one-to-one cultural transmission prevented blending inheritance and allowed the stable coexistence of distinct behavioral traditions within the same social groups. Our results confirm that cultural inheritance via role models can promote rather than erode behavioral heterogeneity in natural populations.

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