Monkey Memo


Creative Commons License photo credit: belgianchocolate

One of the traits that scientists have identified in order for a species to be considered “human” is the ability to communicate in a complex fashion.

The adjective “complex” was added after people realized that a plain and simple “ability to communicate” would not suffice. After all, there are many other animals that communicate.

Primatologists, people who make a career studying our close non-human relatives, like chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans, have observed that these animals too are capable of communicating with each other. Chimpanzees may well be the most intelligent communicators in the animal world, although Flipper may have something to say about this as well.

Here is where it gets even more interesting: observations of primates in general and apes in particular have shown that these animals are capable not only of communicating with each other, but that some also possess what is called Machiavellian intelligence.

Orangutan at St. Paul Zoo

Creative Commons License photo credit: jimbowen0306

In plain English: not only do some primates communicate with each other, they also know how to deceive one another.

Better still: not only do they lie to each other, the individuals being lied to know it. Conversely, chimps also express kindness and care for less fortunate members of the troop.

Aside from making observations, scientists are now also resorting to advanced MRI techniques to probe the communication abilities of non-human primates further. In a recent article scientists published their findings that macaque monkeys had the ability to recognize the vocalizations that were made by fellow macaques. Moreover, they also seem to be able to identify who among them made these sounds.

This leads to an interesting paragraph in the news report (note the statement made in the last sentence):

Silverback Lowland Gorilla

Creative Commons License photo credit: macinate

“The discovery of a voice area in the monkey brain also opens a window into human verbal communication and brain function. Many people doubt that there is much to be learned from other animals about human verbal communication and language. Contrasting this, these findings provide direct parallels between how the brains of humans and non-human animals process communication signals. This study strongly argues that voice areas were evolutionarily conserved in primates, challenging the notion that higher-level verbal communication can only be achieved by the human brain.”

While this should not make us fear of being overtaken by our primate cousins any time soon, these insights do convey once more how close we are, not only in genetic makeup, but also in cognitive abilities.

Science Doesn’t Sleep (4.30.08)

Home Cinema Sunday. Popcorn Sunday.
Creative Commons License photo credit: kozumel

So here’s what went down since you logged off.

I think I’ll go with the Raisinettes next time. A new study shows a higher incidence of lung disease among popcorn-factory workers.  

An Australian geologist has found a rare meteorite impact crater – using Google Earth. What can you find?

Pro athletes already seem superhuman – what happens if they start being genetically engineered? SciGuy has an interesting take on whether genetics are the steroids of the future.

 Did you catch the Messenger this month? If not, the Sydney Observatory has a great photo post about the changing brightness of Mars.

Hurry up, Jr. – your bald eagle stew is getting cold! The best way to save an endangered species might be to get people to eat it.

PHOTO From You: Insect Identification

Have you ever just wondered what the weird alien-like creature is in your backyard, or what is that bizarre THING hanging onto you car? Well, we’re here to help. One of my favorite parts of being an entomologist is helping people to identify amazing insects and other arthropods that we have right here in our little part of the world. So snap a quick photo and send it in to Even if you know what the bugs is, we’d love to see all of your awesome photos! We’ll feature them right here on our blog with a description of the critter. We can’t wait to see what you have, and we love a challenge.


Photo provided by Troy Bell
Green Lynx Spider (Peucitia viridans)

This photo was sent to us by Troy Bell, a volunteer at our Woodlands Xploration Station. Thanks Troy, for this incredible photo of a Green Lynx Spider (Peucitia viridans).

Lynx spiders can be distinguished from others by their hexagonal eye arrangement, long tapering abdomen, and spiny legs. The Green Lynx Spider is the largest found in North America and can be found in the southern U.S., Mexico, and Central America.

These spiders do not make a web; they preserve their silk for their precious egg case, which they guard ferociously. They are considered to be “sit and wait” predators, but some have been observed stalking their prey, much like a cat.

This species has been recognized as a beneficial predator, due to it’s affinity for agricultural pests, such as the Bollworm Moth.  They also, unfortunately, have a taste for beneficial insects like honeybees. These spiders will rarely bite humans and their venom is harmless.

What a beautiful spider – thanks again for sharing your photo with us, Troy!

Science Doesn’t Sleep (4.29.08)

I’ve got my giant, soccer-
ball-sized eye on you.
Creative Commons License photo credit: MikeBlogs

So here’s what went down since you logged off.

Flava Flav might be smarter than you think. A new study shows that people who can keep a beat score higher in intelligence tests. Of course, none of us are all that smart.

Do you suffer from biobigotry?

Not something I’d like to find in my freezer – Scientists in New Zealand are thawing the corpse of a 1,089 pound, 26-foot giant squid (the largest ever caught) to learn more about how it lived.

Meet your great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great…Geneticists have linked a 300 year old aboriginal man found in a glacier to 17 living people. (Via Slashdot.)

You look so much like your mother! “The world’s first cloned horse has given birth to a healthy foal.”

Do people actually learn anything at museums? USA Today has an interesting feature on science museums’ efforts to increase science literacy. (Via Science Buzz.) By the way, what’s the last thing you learned at a museum? Do share.