Taking Pics, Recognizing Words &
Things Apes Can Do Better Than Us
Ugandapithecus, a 20-million year old skull found this week in 2011, was the latest and most complete bone remnants discovered of a primate that may have been our relative. It’s also our excuse to report what’s up with our still living relatives, monkeys, baboons, macaques, and orangutans.
Since we’re passed acknowledging their smarts, which hasn’t prevented us from treating them like our servers, we’ll simply line up a few startling examples, and let you dwell on your own conclusions. After all, we still haven’t found a way of picturing animals without placing ourselves in front of the camera.
Much of our research about primates, for instance, is not about them, but entirely focused on how much they can help us understand ourselves. We tend to attribute a disproportional weight on that single-digit percentage that set us apart from apes, and skim over everything else we may share with them.
At the same time, we make the serious mistake of seeing us in them, to the point of anthropomorphizing everything they do. That’s led to some of the tragic incidents when chimpanzees or other primates attack their human ‘family,’ even after years of trying to numb up their wildness.
That being said, we’re not above considering them disarmingly cute, to the point of risking our own lives in order to attain even a bit of their raw connection with the natural world. Much of our misperceptions about the intelligence of animals may be blamed on our longing to regain that long lost connection.
Even if all else falls, let’s not be too harsh on the wisdom of writing a post, so we can also publish some endearing pics of monkeys at play. We may not see the day when the proverbial ‘missing link’ will be uncovered. But from a strictly non-scientific point of view, that may not even be necessary; all we’ve ever needed to learn about animals may be already here.
A WORD OR TWO ABOUT BABOONS
There are several myths about the intelligence of primates, but that one about them having a faster development than a human child is not one of them. Now an experiment seems to have stretched that concept. Like that first-graders can distinguish between actual written words and random sequences of letters? Baboons can do that too.
That’s no easy feat, and if you’re a baboon, you’d better make sure your handlers have plenty of snack rewards to encourage your progress. That’s what Aix-Marseille University researcher Jonathan Grainger did, as six of them went through an extensive period of tests that seems to prove their superior grasp of language.
After thousands of times, all baboons learned some 80 words, regardless what they meant. That’s definitely more than many of us will ever learn of the French language anyway. But the researchers said that a particular animal, Dan, learned to recognize more than 300 words. You may say, teachers always play favorites, right?
Maybe. But Dan and his gang also learned to tell the difference between a word, or a simple succession of letters. That’s something that even your own brilliant first-grader has learned only when he or she started reading, and even then, chances are kids do that in order to find out whether the letters make up for a meaningful word or not.
Then, of course, Grainger and his team moved to what really had triggered their study in the first place: the wonders of the human brain. Like us, what the baboons were probably doing was following their brains’ need to form patterns, applying those they’d seen before to determine whether the letters made sense or not. Beautiful minds, they may have concluded. Ours, of course.
ORANGUTANS’ HABITS & TECH PROWESS
Now meet 8-year-old Peanut, from Miami’s Jungle Island Zoo, and 13-year-old Tori, from Java’s Taru Jurug zoo, both female and highly intelligent. Peanut is part of a group of orangutans who learned to use iPads to draw pictures and play games. Such skill has been used by zoo caregivers to improve communication with the animals.
Tori, on the other hand, is very good at smoking, a habit she developed after low-I.Q. visitors would toss cigarette buts at her. Now, she’s been moved to an isolated island at the center of an artificial pond, so zoo workers can help her quit. It’ll also have the plus that she’ll be permanently protected from the public.
Despite her addiction, she remains healthy. But following our usual way of seeing animals through our own condition, her smoking is slightly ironic. That is because Peanut was recently diagnosed with cell lymphoma, an unrelated form of cancer for which she’s been undergoing chemotherapy. As it turned out, orangutan body tissue is practically identical to human’s.
So, as 70 to 80% of us usually recover from the disease, the same can be expected for this tech-savvy girl. As with us, some temporary hair loss should also be expected, but everyone is hopeful she’ll soon resume playing with her fraternal sister Pumpkin. The iPad experiment also showed that, like with humans, only the youth finds pleasure playing with it. It figures.
REVENGE OF MOUNTAIN GORILLAS
It was also young primates in the jungles of Rwanda who recently did something truly amazing. After a poacher’s trap killed one of their own, without any warning, a group of youngsters went around finding and destroying the traps. They were captured on camera dismantling the devices without getting hurt, which shows some premeditated thought process in their actions.
Antelope hunters routinely spread out the so-called snares, a primitive rope-and-branch contraption, throughout Rwanda’s Volcano National Park. Sometimes the traps catch the gorillas who live there too, but adults can easily free themselves from them. But a young infant, named Ngwino, was found dead in one of them, last week.
Even though the poachers rarely consider them of any value, they make no effort to free the animals they don’t want from their traps. Apparently, while trying to escape, Ngwino hurt himself and the ropes caused gangrene in one of his legs, leading to his death. The sad incident prompted a startling reaction from the gorillas.
As the trackers were combing the forest for snares, dismantling them to protect the endangered species, they came across one that was very close to one of their clans. As they were about to deactivate it, a known silverback cautioned them to stay away. Then, two juveniles appeared, and while one jumped on the bent tree branch to break it, the other freed the noose.
It was a clearly communal effort, witnessed by tourists and other park rangers, that seems to have been decided priorly. It wasn’t the first time they successfully dismantle a trap either. Now, if they could only place a poacher or two in it, to serve as a warning, that would be great. Then here we go again, asking animals to be more like us. When are we going to learn?
HEY, YOU, SAY CHEESE
Monkeys and macaques will never cease to amaze us, let’s get that clear. But if you think it’s all fun and games (we doubt you really do), they seem to be affected by similar bouts of lethargy and hyper-activity, just like your bipolar Uncle Bob. Some research seems to show that their stress may increase in the presence of humans, too.
Take the black howler monkeys at the Rio Cuarto Urban Ecological Park, in Argentina. After two alpha females died less than two years ago, their male companions began showing signs of depression, and four others simply died. Park director Miriam Rodriguez believes that they died of sadness, since the animals in this 30-acre sanctuary are very close to each other.
Now, the survivors are being treated with anti-depressants similar to the ones used by humans, despite initial resistance. The debate over how similar and how different we really are from animals is far from being settled. But in some instances, we can’t help but crack up at the things they do.
In an animal reserve in Borneo, for example, researchers who had placed several hidden cameras throughout the park to observe monkeys, were surprised to find out that they’ve been ‘discovered’ and some of the animals were actually posing for pictures. If you think we’re pushing it, just take a look at the facial expression of the monkey below.
And while visiting a zoo in Indonesia, award-winning photographer David Slater left his camera unattended for a few minutes and… (drum roll): a black macaque got a hold of it and started taking self-portraits, as if he was familiar with the art form, popular among humans. Again, if you look at his expression, you’ll know exactly what we mean. So, go ahead, smile.