language

Primate metacommunication

Jonah Lehrer, mastermind behind Front Cortex, has “always been fascinated by tip-of-the-tongue moments. It’s estimated that, on average, people have a tip-of-the-tongue moment at least once a week. Perhaps it occurs when you run into an old acquaintance whose name you can’t remember, although you know that it begins with the letter “J.” Or perhaps you struggle to recall the title of a recent movie, even though you can describe the plot in perfect detail.
What’s interesting about this mental hiccup is that, even though the mind can’t remember the information, it’s convinced that it knows it, which is why we devote so many mental resources to trying to recover the missing word. (This is a universal experience: The vast majority of languages, from Afrikaans to Hindi to Arabic, even rely on tongue metaphors to describe the tip-of-the-tongue moment.) But here’s the mystery: If we’ve forgotten a person’s name, then why are we so convinced that we remember it? What does it mean to know something without being able to access it?
The larger question is how the mind decides what to think about. After all, if we really don’t know the name – it’s nowhere inside our head – then it’s a waste of time trying to find it. This is where metacognition, or thinking about thinking, comes in handy. At any given moment, we automatically monitor the flux of thoughts, emotions and errata flowing in the stream of consciousness. As a result, when a name goes missing we immediately analyze the likelihood of being able to remember it. Do we know the first letter of the name? Can we remember other facts about the person? Are we able to remember the first names of other acquaintances from high school? Based on the answer to these questions, we can then make an informed guess about whether or not it’s worth trying to retrieve the misplaced memory.
Interestingly, a new experiment with a variety of primates (gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos and orangutans) demonstrated that great apes also demonstrate some rudimentary metacognitive skills. The study, conducted by Josep Call at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, involved presenting the primates with two hollow tubes. One of the tubes came with a food reward, while the other was empty. The apes were then observed as they searched for the reward.

Read on for the results.

culture · psychology

Just how connected we primates are

I feel bad just dumping links onto the page, but if I don’t do it this way it just isn’t going to happen:
Radiolab’s tragic story about Lucy, who was raised by humans.


community

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.”

culture

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.
Uncategorized

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.
emotion

Monkey see, monkey do, monkey approve

From MSNBC:

We humans often imitate the body postures or mannerisms of people we meet, usually without either person realizing it.

Previous studies have shown that this imitation promotes affection and empathy for the imitator in the people who are being imitated, suggesting thiscommon human behavior evolved to help us get along and thrive in social groupings. In short, it might help strangers become friends.

But whether or not the same was true for other primates wasn’t known. A new study, detailed in the Aug. 14 issue of the journal Science, suggests the effect works in capuchin monkeys, a very social species of New World monkey that lives in tight-knit groups.

Read full story.

language

Laughter

I know this is OLD news at this point, but it is still so cool! This comprehensive (I think) compared vocalizations made by different apes, including us, and found them to be all pretty similar.

Ha ha!

And, some new research on rats being tickled: The Woody Allen/Eeyore type rats of the world don’t like being tickled (yikes, I hate being tickled, so what does that say about me? That I’m an Eeyore of the people world?)

disease · school

Oh sure, blame the primates

Poor guys get in trouble for everything.

First a new strand of AIDS found in Gorillas (and a woman in Cameroon), and now the poor chimps are getting blamed for Malaria.

Seriously, people, can’t we take a little responsibility?
(total side note, but I mean it! Some student is suing her college because she can’t find a job. In a recession. After less than three months of searching. Grow up!)

culture

Update on Baboon buddies

So my last post dealt with baboons making male/female relationships. The authors of the paper basically said because the dudes weren’t getting sex out of the females they didn’t see what the males were getting out of it. The females did get harassed less.

WELL, I just happened to be listening to an archived episode of Radiolab, probably a couple of years old, and they interviewed Robert Sapolsky, author of Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers and a studier of all things stressful. Sapolsky primary animal of study is baboons. In this interview, Sapolsky discussed this same phenomenon, where males will hang out with females, not for sex, just for companionship. Sapolsky actually seemed to imply that the males got more out of the relationships than the femmes. Why:

1. The males WERE in fact having sex more frequently with females in this troop of baboons.
2. When a dominant male gets old and loses his status, he is in essence drummed out of the troop, about half the time fleeing to a new troop where he is still lower on the totem pole but less harassed overall. HOWEVER, the half that don’t leave the troop are the ones who formed friendships with the females.

Ha ha! Having females as your allies is a political and evolutionary good idea for baboons. So it works out well for everyone involved.

There are probably different cultures of baboon troops, but it’s nice to know that at least for some male baboons it pays to have female friends.