For many young animals there is much to learn in a short time if they are to succeed as adults. Master-apprentice relationships can be vital for offspring to accomplish skills that will ultimately bring them food, shelter and sex.

Dancing male long-tailed manakins It takes seven years of practice before the apprentice long-tailed manakin may perform this synchronised ballet with the master (Photo courtesy BBC)

While scientific evidence of active teaching in the natural world is extremely rare, young animals can prepare themselves for life by watching an experienced 'master' go about their business.

And in some cases, masters might call on their apprentices for help.

For long-tailed manakin alpha males, having a wingman is essential if they are to attract a mate.

For seven long years, a master and apprentice pair will practice a meticulously synchronised, flamboyant ballet before they are ready to perform a private dance for a female.

Deep in a Costa Rican forest, a master and apprentice long-tailed manakin pair performs for a female; matching their song as well as their dance moves. In one performance they alternate jumping high into the air, sounding guttural calls. Known as the 'popcorn' dance, the movements become faster and faster, showing off their impeccable timing. In another dance – the 'cartwheel' – the male positioned at the front moves backwards while the male behind jumps over the top in a continuous pattern.

Finally, despite the enthusiasm of the apprentice or 'beta' male, once the master gives the signal, his student must leave. Only the master will have the chance to mate if the pair successfully impress their discerning female audience.

It is only when the master long-tailed manakin dies that the apprentice might have the chance to take over his dancing 'court'. These colourful birds put on one of the most impressive shows in nature, but only a small number of males will actually get the chance to mate.

Independence through experience

In most other examples we know of master-apprenticeships, infants appear to learn from parents or older members of a group.

Orangutan young stay near their mothers until they are around eight years old. There is much to learn before they become independent. Nest-building for example is essential for survival in a life played out among tropical tree tops.

Young orangutans start to practise nest-building at six months old, and are only ready to perform the daunting task successfully at around three or four years, says Dr. Adam van Casteren from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, whose research has revealed the advanced engineering skills required to build the nests.

Young orangutan Young orangutans practice making nests from around six months old until they are finally ready to construct them themselves at three or four. (Photo courtesy Dita Alangkara / Associated Press)

“Infants show interest in the mother’s nest and its building; there have even been incidents where the infant has been seen to add and modify twigs in the mother’s nest,” he tells BBC Earth.

For many species, the onus is on the apprentice to gain the knowledge that will aid their survival. They need to help themselves in the race to thrive.

In some rare instances, animals actually teach young to help them learn survival skills.

A helping hand

'Helper' meerkats teach pups how to handle prey by giving them opportunities to take on small animals while under supervision. Over their first three months, the babies become adept at tackling live meals.

“Helpers modified their behaviour in the presence of pups, gradually introducing them to live prey, monitoring their handling behaviour, nudging prey and retrieving and further modifying prey if necessary,” according to a study on teaching in meerkats published in 2006 by zoologist Dr Alex Thornton and colleagues.

Dr Thornton, who now works at the University of Exeter’s Centre for Ecology and Conservation, explains teaching in meerkats is called “opportunity teaching” because the adult is “giving the pupil an opportunity to learn that they wouldn’t otherwise have”.

For example, the adults may kill or disable dangerous prey before bringing their catch to the pups, keeping them out of danger while they practise how to deal with poisonous arachnids.

It is in the interests of all adults in a meerkat group to help the pups to some degree, as the youngsters’ survival will strengthen the group in the long run.

Meerkat pup Meerkat pup from Life Story (credit: BBC / Theo Webb)Meerkat pups practice tackling prey under supervision until they are around three months old (Photo courtesy Theo Webb / BBC)

Types of teaching

But while scientists continue to look for evidence of teaching in animals other than humans, master-apprenticeships in our closest animal relatives, chimpanzees, reminded one group of researchers of the kind of education found in traditional Japanese sushi-making.

Learning to crack a nut can take years for a chimp to master. Young chimps try to imitate their mothers, which in turn display “high levels of tolerance” around their offspring, the researchers, from Japan and the UK write in the book Primate Origins of Human Cognition and Behaviour.

Similarly, they say, in sushi-making, “the apprentice is forbidden to even touch the utensils, rice, fish or other ingredients for the first few years of his training.” He or she must carefully observe the master sushi maker at work and wash dishes, until one day the master gives permission to their apprentice to make their first sushi.

In both cases “the apprentice of course needs the master, but the masters need apprentices too, if they are to transmit their knowledge and skills to the next generation.”

This article is presented by Michelle Douglass, courtesy of BBC Earth. View the full article here.