culture · learning

Vervet females better teachers

Not an april fool’s story:
 When vervet monkeys play follow the leader, they prefer to follow a female. That was the conclusion of Erica van de Waal, whose lengthy study of these primates in South Africa will be published this week in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B. When her team presented them with a tricky contraption they had to open to reach a tasty snack, the monkeys learned better if they watched a female from their group demonstrate the solution rather than a male.
Seeking some answers to how social learning works in monkeys, van de Waal and her colleagues headed to Loskop Dam Nature Reserve.
The scientists saw that other monkeys paid more attention when the dominant female was solving the puzzle as opposed to the dominant male. Later, the team passed out the same kind of box to other members of the groups. If those monkeys were among the groups that had watched the male, they didn’t show a preference for which side of the box to open, which suggested they hadn’t learned much during their spectating days. In fact, van de Waal says, they didn’t even show a preference toward attempting to open the box. But, in the groups that watched their dominant female, 80 percent went for the side of the container they’d seen her open before.
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language

Monkey calls translated

Reported by Nicolas Wade, NYT:

Walking through the Tai forest of Ivory Coast, Klaus Zuberbühler could hear the calls of the Diana monkeys, but the babble held no meaning for him.

Today, after nearly 20 years of studying animal communication, he can translate the forest’s sounds. This call means a Diana monkey has seen a leopard. That one means it has sighted another predator, the crowned eagle. “In our experience time and again, it’s a humbling experience to realize there is so much more information being passed in ways which hadn’t been noticed before,” said Dr. Zuberbühler, a psychologist at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

Do apes and monkeys have a secret language that has not yet been decrypted? And if so, will it resolve the mystery of how the human faculty for language evolved? Biologists have approached the issue in two ways, by trying to teach human language to chimpanzees and other species, and by listening to animals in the wild.
The first approach has been propelled by people’s intense desire — perhaps reinforced by childhood exposure to the loquacious animals in cartoons — to communicate with other species. Scientists have invested enormous effort in teaching chimpanzees language, whether in the form of speech or signs. A New York Times reporter who understands sign language, Boyce Rensberger, was able in 1974 to conduct what may be the first newspaper interview with another species when he conversed with Lucy, a signing chimp. She invited him up her tree, a proposal he declined, said Mr. Rensberger, who is now at M.I.T.

But with a few exceptions, teaching animals human language has proved to be a dead end. They should speak, perhaps, but they do not. They can communicate very expressively — think how definitely dogs can make their desires known — but they do not link symbolic sounds together in sentences or have anything close to language.

Better insights have come from listening to the sounds made by animals in the wild. Vervet monkeys were found in 1980 to have specific alarm calls for their most serious predators. If the calls were recorded and played back to them, the monkeys would respond appropriately. They jumped into bushes on hearing the leopard call, scanned the ground at the snake call, and looked up when played the eagle call.

More details!

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Rhesus Moms coo over their babies (awwww)

We all knew that all primate moms are generally awesome, but now a new study has found that Rhesus Macaque moms do the same sort of bonding stuff with their babies that human moms do; stare at their faces, cuddle, make faces at them…you know, the stuff that moms and babies think are really fun but grosses everyone else out. *joke*

Everybody say it with me now…awwww….


Researchers saw mothers actively searching for the infant’s gaze, sometimes holding the infant’s head and gently pulling it towards her face, as this mother macaque does.
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Baboon buddies

Researchers recently found that baboons will have opposite gender friends, but they’re not sure why, particularly what the males get out of the male-female friendship. I love the BBC headline, that baboon females will “exploit” their male friends. Great attitude, guys…

“Male and female baboons form platonic friendships, where sex is off the menu.

Having a caring friend around seems to greatly benefit the females and their infants, as both are harassed less by other baboons when in the company of their male pal.

But why the males choose to be platonic friends remains a mystery.

The finding published in Behavioral Sociobiology and Ecology also suggests that male baboons may be able to innately recognise their offspring.”

The male buddies were not the genetic fathers, nor had they copulated with the female around the time the infant was conceived.

Nguyen, the baboon researcher, suggests “that by chaperoning a female in a platonic relationship, a male might advertise his parental skills to other females, who then might consider him a worthy partner. But as yet, there’s no evidence for this or any other reason why males become chaperones. However, for the females, the benefits of having a chaperone are clear.”

Females and their infants don’t get harassed as much when there’s a dude around.

children · technology

Robot love

A baby monkey in the U.K. gets a stuffed surrogate mom with a mechanical heart while her mom recovers from a c-section, so the little DeBrazza baby can lie against the toy and be comforted by her “mom’s” heartbeat. Awwww…..

Teams in Italy and the U.K. are currently developing a robot kid. This robot has been programmed to learn how to crawl, walk, an move, using the leading theories today of child development. The best part, the schematics on how to make the kid are open access, meaning ANYONE who has serious robotics training could potentially make and teach this robot kid. They hope this will speed the development of the robot, including developing nerves and sensing skin for the kiddo. My favorite part in the film clip (see link), is when the robot gets “falls asleep.”