Altruism in primates

Bonobos find it easier to share than chimps do, although young chimps do just as well as bonobos of all ages. It was speculated to be because bonobos don’t have to worry about having more or less food like chimps do.

At the same time, chimps will adopt orphaned kiddos, according to a new study that found 18 cases of orphaned chimps being adopted in the wild.

Speaking of more and less, researchers based at the Institute of Neurobiology at the University of Tubingen in Germany set out to see whether rhesus monkeys could learn and flexibly apply the greater-than and less-than rule. They tested the monkeys with groups of both ordered and random dots, many of which were novel combinations to ensure that the subjects couldn’t have simply memorized them. The monkeys were cued into applying either the greater-than or less-than rule by the amount of time that elapsed between being shown the first and second group of dots.

“The monkeys immediately generalized the greater than and less than rules to numerositiesthat had not been presented previously,” the two researchers, Sylvia Bongard and Andreas Nieder, wrote. “This indicates that they understood this basic mathematical principle irrespective of the absolute numerical value of the sample displays.” In other words: “They had learned an abstract mathematical principle.”


Wide spread tool use in primates

Despite the common perception, tool use is not just a sporadic behavior among animals; it’s especially prevalent in primates.

For example, chimps use cleavers and anvils as tools to chop food. Chimps in the Nimba Mountains of Guinea, Africa, use both stone and wooden cleavers, as well as stone anvils, to process Treculia fruits.
The apes are not simply cracking into the Treculia to get to otherwise unobtainable food, say researchers.
Instead, they are actively chopping up the food into more manageable portions.
PhD student Kathelijne Koops and Professor William McGrew of the Leverhulme Centre for Human Evolutionary Studies, University of Cambridge, UK, studied a group of chimps living wild in the Nimba Mountains.
The apes’ use of such tools can be surprisingly sophisticated. “For example, nut-cracking in the Bossou chimpanzee community in Guinea involves the use of a movable hammer and anvil, and sometimes the additional use of stabilising wedges to make the anvil more level and so more efficient,” explains Ms Koops. “Termite fishing in some chimpanzee communities in the Republic of Congo involves the use of a tool set, i.e. different tool components used sequentially to achieve the same goal.
“These chimpanzees were found to deliberately modify termite fishing probes by creating a brush-end, before using them to fish for termites.”

How do these animals keep their teeth healthy? Floss after a meal. At least one does. A macaque in Japan flosses its teeth with its hair, demonstrating that humans aren’t the only animals that clean their teeth and invent tools to help with the task.

The flosser, a free-ranging, middle-aged, female Japanese macaque named Chonpe, may have come up with the tool and the idea, according to a new study that will appear in the January issue of Primates.
Lead author Jean-Baptiste Leca told Discovery News that dental flossing could have been a fortuitous yet “accidental byproduct of grooming.”
Leca, a post-doctoral fellow at Kyoto University’s Primate Research Institute, explained that “Japanese macaques sometimes bite into hair or pull it through their mouths to remove external parasites.”
The hair might have become stuck in Chonpe’s teeth, and as she drew the hairs out, “she may have noticed the presence of food remains attached to them.”
“The immediate reward of licking the food remains off the hair may have encouraged her to repeat the behavior for the same effect in the future,” he added.
Read more about meat hammering and flossing.
children · education · learning

Developing minds

Lots of cool news came out recently about human development, from chimps to little humans:

Wild chimps have been shown to understand fire and how it moves, and don’t freak out like other animals do. This is exciting because humans so far had been the only animals documented as keeping their cool around fire…for the most part.

Since we’re in the jungle, it’s once again been show that it’s good for kids to go roll around in the dirt; for one thing it correlates with lower heart disease when they’re older.

But back to brain wiring, kids who get intensive language training when they’re young, like reading, actually have their brains re-wired, in a good way.

New education research is also showing that kids may understand Math at a much earlier age than previously though, and there are ways that they can learn the concepts just as early as we try to teach them language.

One of the skills kids can develop is compartmentalization, which it turns out cavemen could also do much earlier than previously thought; for example, they made different, compartmentalized work stations in their camps, rather than spread everything around and sleep right next to the meat-processing spot.

Speaking of stone-age types, a study has come out that counters the idea that hunter-gatherers didn’t eat any grains at all.

All this data almost makes me want to grab some popcorn and pop it over a fire while playing math games. But not before I go work in my garden patch.


Why chimps don’t talk?

All the news came out last week about the FOXP2 gene, but I can’t help and post it here a week late anyway:

Chimps, our nearest relative, don’t talk. We do. Now scientists have pinpointed a mutation in a gene that might help explain the difference.

The mutation seems to have helped humans develop speech and language. It’s probably not the only gene involved, but researchers found the gene looks and acts differently in chimps and humans, according to a study published online Wednesday by the journal Nature.

Lab tests showed that the human version regulated more than 100 other genes differently from the chimp version. This particular gene — called FOXP2 — mutated around the time humans developed the ability to talk.

“It’s really playing a major role in chimp-human differences,” said the study’s author, Daniel Geschwind, a professor of neurology, psychiatry and human genetics at the University of California, Los Angeles. “You mutate this gene in humans and you get a speech and language disorder.”

This tells you “what may be happening in the brain,” he said.

Read the full Associated Press story.


More free-range research!

Another reblogged good’n from Brandon Keim of Wired Science, discussing primatologist Pascal Gagneux’s argument that free-range research is WAY better for all primates involved, including humans:

“Gagneux, who is noted for both his comparisons of human and chimpanzee genetics and his critical bioethical analysis of chimp research, says it’s about time we studied chimpanzees humanely. He’d like to see forest-size chimp-research facilities that would allow scientists to continue studying our closest relative, while protecting the endangered species in something close to its natural habitat.

“Not everyone thinks this is a good idea. ‘Chimpanzees should be in sanctuaries to live out the rest of their lives without any blood drawing or having their bodies studied after death,’ said Deborah Fouts, co-director of the Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute. She is renowned for her work with Washoe, the first non-human primate to learn sign language. ‘Humans can volunteer to have their bodies used for science after death. Chimpanzees cannot.’

“Researchers also caution that captive research populations will never take the place of wild chimpanzees. ‘Chimps raised in captivity have no knowledge base about dealing with the natural environment,’ said Linda Brent, director of Chimp Haven, which houses chimpanzees retired from government research. The jungle is no longer their home, and won’t ever be again.”

Read full post.

Personally, I am with Gagneux. It is inhumane, inprimate, to keep chimpanzees in cages and indoors not letting them lead normal lives. Even if they wouldn’t know how to act in a wild jungle, they would certainly do better in a large enclosure with trees and things to play with. At the same time, many humans will never be comfortable with the Fouts’ idea (Both Deborah and her husband Roger) that chimps should never, ever, ever be used for any type of research ever again. It’s going to be a long time before people are willing to do that. BUT giving chimpanzees a nice, humane/primate place to live is a good start.

cognition · robotics

Apes acting more like humans than humans

Macaques have figured out how to fish. Studies have also shown that chimps have the ability to plan ahead. It has also been found that chimps need hugs and kisses or other forms of affection.

And the latest landmark of humans? The Japanese have developed a robot girlfriend.

I’m planning to go cuddle and enjoy a nice fish dinner.

language · play

RIP Washoe

Washoe, “the first non-human to learn American Sign Language,” passed away last night, October 30 2007, at the age of 42. A long life for chimpanzees, and an interesting one for sure.
I just recently read Roger Fouts’s book Next of Kin, the primatologist who worked with Washoe from the time she was a year old, and it is amazing what Washoe and Fouts accomplished together. It is always also sad to discover someone so inspiring only to have them die shortly afterward, or to learn that they just died.
I hope Washoe’s family is doing okay with the loss of their matriarch. This only inspires me more to make the drive out to Ellensburg and visit the rest of the chimpanzees before they all pass away. I’m fascinated to see how much of their play is verbal vs. signing vs. physical. Maybe for my birthday (they just closed for the season). Rest in Peace, Washoe.