Stories tagged monkeys


The monkeys are probably less enthused about space travel: But who can say what monkeys really want?
The monkeys are probably less enthused about space travel: But who can say what monkeys really want?Courtesy RadioFan
Invest in the Abkhazian monkey industry! Because the derelict research monkey houses of this booming breakaway region of a breakaway region are about to take off! Literally!

No, not literally. Probably not at all. But that’s not stopping those monkey farmers from dreaming.

This is just an utterly bizarre article. I don’t think I can make it any funnier.

It’s about an all but abandoned primate research facility in Abkhazia, a breakaway region of the former Soviet republic of Georgia. Back in its heyday, when the communists were really into monkey-related science, the facility was producing “groundbreaking medical research,” and breeding monkeys to send into space. Then, as some of you may have heard about, the USSR went belly up, and things went down hill fast at The Institute of Experimental Pathology and Therapy.

And then Abkhazia tried to break away from Georgia, and things went further downhill, possibly underground. During the ensuing civil war, “many monkeys were shot.” Others were just let out of their cages to just run around the city. From a prewar population of about 1,000, the facility houses only about 350 apes and monkeys now, not including “at least a few dozen monkeys… believed to be living in the wooded mountains of Abkhazia, descendants of a 1970s experiment where scientists released apes* into the wild.” Ok.

(*If you call me out on monkeys being descended from apes released in the 70s, you’re not my friend, because I’m not friends with people like that. It’s just what the article said.)

But wait! There’s more! Abkhazia recently got a new sugar daddy—the big bear, Mother Russia herself. And with fresh investment, the monkey research facility has some high hopes and big dreams. “Going to Mars?” they say. “Send some of our monkeys instead!”

Granted, the proposed Mars trips would take about a year and a half, and the institute’s best-known space monkey, a rhesus named Yerosha, went, you know, ape during a space trip just thirteen days long. (Yerosha freed a paw somehow, and started hitting buttons and generally messing stuff up. That darn monkey.)

They have a plan to avoid that sort of thing on the Mars mission, however: robots. Yes, as the article puts it, “the project would also include a robot designed to take care of the imprisoned ape.” The robot will feed the monkey and clean up after it. The real challenge, they say, is “to teach the monkey to cooperate with the robot.”

What? That’s the speed bump in the monkey+robot Mars flight plan? They have a point, I guess. Because monkeys are so used to human servants that a robotic butler in space might be a big conceptual jump for them.

Anyway, best of luck to you, Abkhazian monkey farmers.


Curious langur
Curious langurCourtesy John Downer
Have you ever wondered why people honk at you .02 seconds after the light turns green? Or why some people take Connect Four a little too seriously? Well, it may be the length of their fingers. That’s right, the difference in length between your 2nd finger (or pointer finger) and your 4th finger (or ring finger) is thought to be an indirect measurement of testosterone levels you were exposed to during fetal development. The more testosterone, the longer your ring finger compared to you pointer finger.

In a recent study, researchers from the University of Liverpool and Oxford used this measurement to link aggressiveness in primates with the levels of prenatal testosterone in utero. They found that Old World monkeys tended to have a low 4th digit (4D) to 2nd digit (2D) ratio (i.e. their ring fingers were longer than their pointer fingers) and also exhibited aggressive, competitive, and promiscuous behavior. New World monkeys (like gibbons), on the other hand, along with Great Apes (like chimps and orangutans) tended to have a higher 2D:4D ratio. These species were found to exhibit much more cooperative and tolerant behavior. The results of the study have implications for our own social behaviors. We live in large multi-male, multi-female groups and are (usually) quite cooperative. This study, and more like it, could start to shed light on the origins of our sociality.

The use of digit ratio as a measurement of prenatal testosterone is not new, however. Many researchers have used it even in humans (we are primates after all) to try and predict various behaviors, aptitudes, and personal characteristics. For example, some of the traits suggested to correlate with low digit ratios (ring longer than pointer) include greater male fertility, assertiveness in women, and greater musical and athletic ability. These studies looked at the increased competitive nature brought out in individuals with exposure to high levels of prenatal testosterone.

So the next time someone cuts you off, just know it might be the case that their 4th digit is longer than their 2nd… so try to leave your 3rd digit out of it.


The scariest of robots: And how do I know there's a monkey brain inside? Look how angry it is.
The scariest of robots: And how do I know there's a monkey brain inside? Look how angry it is.Courtesy litmuse
Oh, you’re probably the same way—how often do you find yourself thinking, “I wish monkeys were more terrifying. Sure, they’re all fanged little were-men, with hand-feet and clever brains, but there must be some way that they could be worse.”

Pretty often, huh?

And, when you watch the news, don’t you constantly find yourself musing, “Hmm. The future is looking a little too bright.”

Well, don’t worry, Buzzketeers. The future promises to be just as dark and bewildering as ever, and horrifying cyber-apes are part of it.

“Now, JGordon, it can’t be that bad.”

Hey! Don’t sound so disappointed; it is that bad. Skeptical? Check it out for yourself—Sciencemen and Techladies have trained two macaque monkeys to control huge robotic arms…using their monkey brains!

Macaques have shown their evil little faces on Science Buzz before (murderous enthusiasm and enthusiastic murder), and I don’t think a refresher on robots is at all necessary—because there’s no escaping them.

Robotic limbs are becoming kind of a big deal these days, but even the most advanced of them rely on nerves remaining in a partial limb, or another part of the body entirely; which muscles to activate for a certain function must be relearned, or an operation like gripping with a robotic hand can be linked to a movement like shrugging the shoulders. It’s tricky to do, and it pushes the brain’s flexibility, especially considering that the only feedback the limb gives might be a hot or poking sensation at the connection point (this in place of a real limb’s feedback, like the pressure, friction, or warmth one might feel through their hands or feet).

Wiring a prosthetic (or any robotic device) directly into the brain—as was the case with these monkeys and their robot arms—overcomes some of the problems with existing prosthetic technology, while adding some new challenges.

With electrodes implanted right into the brain, relearning limb function can come much more quickly and naturally (awful little monkeys can do it, after all). A little too quickly, actually—a monkey at Duke University was similarly wired up this winter to make a robot in Japan walk, and the robotic body actually received the signals to walk before the monkey’s actual body did. Limbs wired the same way could be too fast or powerful for the brain to initially cope with. You might, say, run into a wall before your brain has time to create another route for your robo-legs; the speed of the limb action would be faster than the speed of thought.

However, if the prosthetics operated with a “closed neural loop,” that is to say if they could be made to provide natural feedback to the brain (like heat, pressure, strain, etc), scientists think that the brain could adapt much more quickly, and could even learn whole new pathways of motion. So a person wired up in the right way might be able to control a plane, or a nanosized robot directly with their mind. And it wouldn’t be something where you would think about walking forward and the plane would fly forward—you would learn the plane’s movements of flying, feel the flying, and control it as if you were the plane. That sort of things is still a long way off, and unless new technology is invented to sense and input to the brain in another way, it would require having a bunch of electrodes stuck through your skull and into your neurons.

This, of course, is all scientific blah be de blah, and if distracts from the real issue behind the story: cyborg monkeys. Do you know what the monkeys were actually taught to do with their metal limbs? Feed themselves. How horrible. Why not just teach them how to operate guns with their minds, or remove human brains through our nasal passageways?

In time, that too will come to pass. Look forward to it.

We've had our share of controversial math posts here on the Buzz lately. But here's news that rhesus macaques are quicker than humans at doing computer-based math. They must not find it boring like many members of the homo sapien species. And we've documented in the past that chimps have better memories than most people.


Sizing up the competition: Capuchin monkeys can be trained to use money, and react to it in surprisingly humanlike ways.
Sizing up the competition: Capuchin monkeys can be trained to use money, and react to it in surprisingly humanlike ways.Courtesy Arriving at the horizon

Researchers in Italy have taught capuchin monkeys how to use money to buy food in lab experiments. The monkeys were observed making simple economic decisions.

The study is not yet available on-line, but it sounds an awful lot like this research from Yale, published last year. There, the monkeys not only learned to use money, but to respond to price fluctuations, and even to steal. However, they could not budget and they gambled irrationally – a lot like their hominid cousins.

There was also an incident of flinging feces at fellow monkeys who did not play by the rules – perhaps the most dismal experiment in the history of the dismal science.

Gone fishin': A long-tailed macaque in Thailand demonstrates its unorthodox technique.
Gone fishin': A long-tailed macaque in Thailand demonstrates its unorthodox technique.Courtesy nittynorn

Meanwhile in Indonesia, industrious long-tailed macaque monkeys aren't waiting for handouts. They are supporting themselves by observed fishing, scooping fish from the water with their bare hands and eating them.

This is the first documented evidence of fishing in this species, though other primates – including baboons, chimps and orangutans – are known to fish. Researchers believe this behavior in macaques is an indication of their flexibility and ability to adapt to new conditions.

In light of our current poll I thought this article about monkeys performing mental addition to be interesting...


A Rhesus monkey: Full of hate, a monkey's most powerful emotion.  (phot courtesy of OskarN on
A Rhesus monkey: Full of hate, a monkey's most powerful emotion. (phot courtesy of OskarN on
A week ago Sunday, the Deputy Mayor of New Delhi, India, died as a result of being attacked by monkeys.

Deputy Mayor S.S. Bajwa was attacked by Rhesus Macaque monkeys on the balcony of his own home. Overwhelmed by the monkey pack, Bajwa fell from the balcony, and sustained severe head injuries upon impact with the ground.

Rhesus Macaques generally live in “troops” of about 20 individuals (a group this size is technically referred to as “pretty scary”), but troops have been known to be as large as 180 individuals (technically “super scary”). In addition to small but thriving colonies in Florida and South Carolina Rhesus monkeys can be found across southern Asia from Afghanistan to China. They are particularly populous in cities like New Delhi, where they have overrun many public buildings and neighborhoods. Coincidentally, these locations have recently been added to my list of places I don’t want to live: Florida; South Carolina; New Delhi all of southern Asia.

Part of the problem in New Delhi is that some devout Hindus consider the Macaques to be manifestations of the monkey god Hanuman, and encourage their occupation of public places by feeding them peanuts and bananas. Unafraid of humans, even Deputy Mayors, the Macaques will sometimes bite or steal food from people.

Rhesus Macaques are also extensively used as biological and medical test subjects, leading some (me) to theorize that this may have been a misguided revenge killing. What’s more, Macaques have accumulated significant space travel experience (NASA launched a bunch in the 50s and 60s, and Russia sent one into space as recently as 1997), and have even had their genes spliced with those of a jellyfish, making them powerful and unpredictable potential foes to humanity.

In an effort to deal with the Rhesus situation, Delhi authorities have employed monkey catchers who use langurs, “a larger and fiercer kind of monkey,” to scare away or catch the Macaques. Nothing stops a dangerous monkey problem like “larger and fiercer” monkeys.

Speaking of deadly arms races, last week was also the 45th anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis. Will humanity never learn?


One of my responsibilities at the Science Museum is to collect the paper questions visitors submit to our featured Scientists on the Spot. Sometimes the questions don’t quite mesh with the featured scientist’s background, but are good questions anyway, or are entertaining, or fun, and I thought this would be a good forum to answer some of the questions that would otherwise go unanswered. So, here we go!

Q: How many people are there in the world?

A: According to the World Population Clock from the United States Census Bureau, as of 3:30pm on June 2, 2006 there are approximately 6,519,746,485 people in the world. This number is constantly increasing, so for the most current number, you should visit the link above.

Q: How many bones are there in the human body?

A: The adult human skeleton has 206 bones, but they don't all start out as single bones. Even long bones (like your femur) start out with the epiphyses separate from the main shaft, and these unify with time. There are 800 centers of ossification in the skeleton that unite with age, and as such, the number of bony elements in a subadult can vary greatly.

Q: What is a spider monkey?

A: From the Wikipedia entry on spider monkeys:

Spider monkeys are New World monkeys of the family Atelidae, subfamily Atelinae. Found in tropical forests from southern Mexico to Brazil, spider monkeys belong to the genus Ateles; the closely related woolly spider monkeys, are in the genus Brachyteles.

Here’s a picture of one kind of spider monkey.
Spider Monkey: Image courtesy dgphilli.

Q: How long does it take to digest gum?

A: My parents always told me not to swallow my gum because it would take seven years for it to be digested. That’s just not true. Chewing gum has five basic ingredients - sweeteners, corn syrup, softeners, flavors and gum base. The first four ingredients are soluble, meaning they dissolve in your mouth as you chew or in your stomach when you swallow. Gum base doesn't dissolve – it just passes through us with the rest of our waste a day or two after you swallow it.

Q: How old do you have to be to donate blood or anything else? Can you be under 18?

A: Well, if you are deceased and a minor the decision to donate you organs is made by your parents or legal guardians. Licensed drivers can make a personal commitment to organ and tissue donation by indicating their wish to donate on their driver's license application. This lets families and emergency personnel know your wishes. Donation information is available in all driver's license bureaus in Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota. In these states, if you indicate your wish to become a donor on your driver's license, it is legally binding. Parental authorization is required for individuals under the age of 18.

To give blood for the Red Cross, you must be at least 17 years old. For more information visit the American Red Cross blood donation site.

Q: What are nails made of?

A: I am going to assume the question is regarding finger or toe nails. Fingernails and toenails are made of a protein called keratin. Keratin is the major protein component of hair, wool, nails, horns, hoofs, and the quills of feathers.

Q: Do you like bubble gum?

A: Not really. My favorite gum when I was a kid was Big League Chew. Now I prefer Swedish Fish.

That’s all for now. Do you have any odds and ends questions you’d like us to try to answer? Leave them for us – we’ll try our best to answer them for you.


Psychologists at Emory University in Atlanta have been studying how capuchin monkeys see themselves by showing them their own reflections.

The scientists assumed that the monkeys would behave as they would when meeting a stranger. Instead, females react with curiosity and friendly gestures, while males act distressed and fearful. Psychologist Frans B.M. de Waal thinks the monkeys realize that the reflections are special, even if they're not quite sure who they're looking at.

Know thyself

When you look in the mirror, you know the person you're seeing is you. You're "self aware." (Scientists consider an animal self-aware if it touches a painted spot on its own face when it looks in a mirror.) People, apes, and dolphins recognize themselves. Most monkeys, though, don't get it.

In a series of experiments, the Emory scientists put capuchin monkeys into test chambers where they had one of three experiences: they saw a monkey of the same sex that they'd never met before, they saw a familiar monkey of the same sex, or they saw their own reflections. Reactions to the other monkeys were predictable, but the reactions to the mirrors were new. And the Emory scientists think they prove that the capuchins have reached some intermediate level of self-awareness, somewhere between seeing their reflections as other monkeys and recognizing themselves.


In recent weeks, scientists have announced the discovery of not one, but two new mammals species:

Scientists describe new species all the time. But usually they're really small, like insects, or live in hard-to-reach places, like under water. New mammals are rare. These two species both come from remote jungle regions, and are shy, timid creatures that avoid humans.

Interestingly, both species were well-known to local people. So these species aren't really "new" — they're just "new to science."