Tag Archives: monkeys

chimp science

Monkeys can read! (not really)

OMG! Monkeys can read! Planet of the apes is coming! Not really. A new paper in Science by Grainger, Dufau, Montant, Ziegler and Fagot at the Aix-Marseille University found that Guinea baboons can be trained to differentiate between four letter English words and nonsense words. One monkey called Dan could recognise up to 300 written words, and by “recognise” I mean he knew those words could give him a treat, not that he could recognise that they signified objects in the world, which is what we mean when we say that a human has “recognised” a word. It’s a minefield isn’t it?

I wonder to what degree this is just a memory test or if the monkeys really are noticing relations between the letters which make up the words, as opposed to the nonsense words. The paper probably answers this. Bloody pay walls… Either way, I don’t think this is evidence to suggest that the role of phoneme-letter matching in humans learning to read should be undermined.


James Hurford: Animals Do Not Have Syntax (Compositional Syntax, That Is)

After passing my final exams I feel that I can relax a bit and have the time to read a book again. So instead of reading a book that I need to read purely for ‘academic reasons’, I thought I’d pick one I’d thoroughly enjoy: James Hurford’s “The Origins of Grammar“, which clocks in at a whopping 808 pages.
I’m still reading the first chapter (which you can read for free here) but I thought I’d share some of his analyses of “Animal Syntax.”
Hurford’s general conclusion is that despite what you sometimes read in the popular press,

“No non-human has any semantically compositional syntax, where the form of the syntactic combination determines how the meanings of the parts combine to make the meaning of the whole.”

The crucial notion here is that of compositionality. Hurford argues that we can find animal calls and songs that are combinatorial, that is songs and calls in which elements are put together according to some kind of rule or pattern. But what we do not find, he argues, are the kinds of putting things together where the elements put together each have a specified meaning and the whole song, call or communicative assembly “means something which is a reflection of the meanings of the parts.”

To illustrate this, Hurford cites the call system of putty-nosed monkeys (Arnold and Zuberbühler 2006). These monkeys have only two different call signals in their repertoire, a ‘pyow’-sound that ‘means’, roughly, ‘LEOPARD’; and a ‘hack’ sound that ‘means’, roughly, ‘EAGLE’.

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Language is not necessary for analogy

Analogy is a trait thought to be uniquely human and the origin is largely unknown. Recent studies have suggested that some language trained apes can find relations between relations, which is thought to be what is at the root of analogy. However, a new study in the journal  Psychological Science  has tested baboons using shapes with matching features. These baboons were able to match pairs which had matching features and pairs which had no matching features.

The study was run by Joël Fagot of the Laboratoire de Psychologie Cognitive (CNRS/Université de Provence) and Roger Thompson of the Franklin & Marshall College (United States).

It has been hypothesised in the past that finding relations between relations is an ability only accessible by language, but these new findings with baboons cast doubt on this assertion.

The experiments were carried out on 29 baboons. The baboons were first shown two shapes on a screen. The baboons then touched one of these shapes and two other pairs of shapes appeared on the screen. To be successful at the task the baboons had to touch the pair representing the same relation as the initial pair. So if the first pair matched in a feature the baboon had to choose the pair which also had a matching feature, and avoid the pair where there was no matching feature, in order to gain a reward. This shows the inherent abilities behind analogy.

6 baboons correctly performed the task after thousands of trials of training showing that it is definitely within the abilities of old world monkeys to resolve analogy problems.

The researchers also revisited the same baboons with the same task a year later and the monkeys were much quicker at acquiring the task showing that they remembered what to do.

These results show that language is not necessary for analogy and leaves questions as to what might make this ability adaptive.


Fagot J, & Thompson RK (2011). Generalized Relational Matching by Guinea Baboons (Papio papio) in Two-by-Two-Item Analogy Problems. Psychological science PMID: 21934135

Replicated Hauser Results

Some of you may remember last summer Marc Hauser was found guilty of research misconduct. This investigation raised questions about several publications including a paper from 2007 in Science. This paper looked into the ability of non-human primates to understand the intentions of a human experimenter by interpreting his gestures.

Today Science has published a partial replication of the study in question which confirms the original findings that chimpanzees, cotton-top tamarins, and rhesus macaques can distinguish intentional gestures, such as pointing to indicate a container with food inside, from “accidental” actions such as a hand flopping against a container.

The Science wesite states the following:

Following the Harvard misconduct investigation, first author Justin Wood, now an assistant professor at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, wrote to Science in June 2010 to notify the journal that the investigation had revealed that the original field notes for the rhesus experiments could not be found:

“An internal examination at Harvard University determined that there are no field notes, records of aborted trials, or subject identifying information associated with the rhesus monkey experiments; however, the research notes and videotapes for the tamarin and chimpanzee experiments were accounted for. Professor Hauser states that “most of the rhesus monkey observations were hand written by [co-author David D.] Glynn on a piece of paper, and then the daily results tallied and reported to Wood over email or by phone” and then the raw data were discarded. The research assistant who performed the experiments (Glynn) confirmed that these field notes were discarded.”

Hauser and Wood returned to Cayo Santiago island in Puerto Rico to redo the experiments from the 2007 paper with the same population of free-ranging rhesus monkeys. Their findings, including field notes and video trials, are available online and they essentially match those reported in the original paper.

It is still not known what went wrong with the original experiment, a statement issued by Science today only says the following:

We stress that this new publication aims only to determine whether the original rhesus monkey experiments from the 2007 paper can be replicated. It has no bearing on questions raised about Dr. Hauser’s larger body of work.

This article from Science Inside quotes Dario Maestriperi as saying:

“The results of this replication are straightforward and entirely consistent with those of the original study. If the authors’ interpretation of their results is correct, these findings are very important and represent one of the clearest demonstrations that nonhuman primates can interpret the behavior of other individuals as intentional or non-intentional….Since the experimenter who tested the rhesus monkeys in the replication study appeared from the video to be the first author on the paper, Justin Wood, he was clearly knowledgeable of the hypotheses being tested and had some strong expectations and desires about the monkeys’ performance on the test.”

So is this replication a clarification of groundbreaking findings or could the monkey’s behaviour be down to the Clever Hans effect?

Meanwhile investigations into Hauser’s research are still ongoing and he is still banned from teaching for the next academic year.


Elephants give each other a helping trunk

A study published on PNAS.org yesterday has shown that elephants might have shared goals which gives them the ability to co-operate.

An experiment was done using the classical 1930s cooperation paradigm used to test the co-operative abilities of monkeys and apes. This paradigm is used to explore the cognition underlying coordination toward a shared goal. This explores what animals know or learn about the benefits of cooperation and also tests their ability to comprehend a partner’s role in cooperation.

The experiment comprises of 2 animals who need to work together to pull 2 ends of the same rope in order to pull a platform towards them which holds a reward such as food.

Experiments such as this have never been done on animals apart from primates before. Plotnik et al. (2011) subjected this experimental paradigm to elephants and have shown that elephants can learn to coordinate with a partner. The elephants also delayed pulling he rope for up to 45 seconds if the arrival of their partner was delayed which showed that they comprehended that there was no point to pulling on the rope if their partner lacked access to the rope. The elephants learnt that this was the case much more quickly than has been shown in Chimpanzees in other studies.

Observations from the wild suggest that in nonhuman primates these co-operative abilities exist but experimental results have been mixed. Plotnik et al. (2011) claim that convergent evolution may have lead elephants to have reached a level of cooperative skill equal to that of chimpanzees.

You can see a video of the elephants doing the experiment here: http://news.bbc.co.uk/earth/hi/earth_news/newsid_9417000/9417308.stm


Plotnik, J. M., R. Lair, w. Suphachoksahakun & F. B. M. de Waal (2011)
Elephants know when they need a helping trunk in a cooperative task. PNAS 2011 : 1101765108v1-201101765.

Prairie Dog Communication

istockphoto.comA recent NPR radio show covered the research of the biosemiotician Con Slobodchikoff of the Univeristy of Arizone on prairie dog calls. The piece is very public-orientated, but still might be worth listening to.

ResearchBlogging.orgWe’ve all (I hope) heard of the vervet monkeys, which have different alarm calls for different predators, such as for leopard (Panthera pardus), martial eagle (Polemaetus bellicosus), and python (Python sebae). (Seyfarth et al. 1980) For each of these predators, an inherent and unlearned call is uttered by the first spectator, after which the vervet  monkeys respond in a suitable manner – climb a tree, seek shelter, etc. It appears, however, that prairie dogs have a similar system, and that it is a bit more complicated.

Slobodchikoff conducted a study where three girls (probably underpaid, underprivaleged, and underappreciated (under)graduate students) walked through a prairie dog colony wearing shirts of the colors green, yellow, and blue. The call of the first prairie dog to notice them was recorded, after which the prairie dogs all fled into their burrows. The intern then walked through the entire colony, took a break for ten minutes, changed shirts, and did it again.

What is interesting is that the prairie dogs have significantly different calls (important, as they are pretty much exactly the same to human ears) for blue and yellow, but not for yellow and green. This is due to the dichromatic nature of praire dog eyesight (for a full study of the eyesight of retinal photoreceptors of subterranean rodents, consult Schleich et al. 2010). The distinction between blue and yellow is important, however, as there isn’t necessarily any reason that blue people are any more dangerous to praire dogs than yellow ones. “This in turn suggests that the prairie dogs are labeling the predators according to some cognitive category, rather than merely providing instructions on how to escape from a particular predator or responding to the urgency of a predator attack.” (Slobodchikoff 2009, pp. 438)

Another study was then done where two towers were built and a line was strung between them. When cut out shapes were slung down the line, the prairie dogs were able to distinguish a triangle from a circle, but not a circle from a square. So, the prairie dogs are not entirely perfect at encoding information. The conclusion still stands however that more information is encoded in the calls than is entirely relevant to a suitable reaction (unless one were to argue that evolutionary pressure existed on prairie dogs to distinguish blue predators from yellow ones.)

NPR labels this ‘prairiedogese’, which makes me shiver and reminds me of Punxatawney Pennsylvania, where Bill Murray was stuck on a vicious cycle in the movie Groundhog Day, forced every day to watch the mayor recite the translated proclamation of the Groundhog, which of course spoke in ‘groundhogese’. Luckily, however, there won’t be courses in this ‘language’.


Schleich, C., Vielma, A., Glösmann, M., Palacios, A., & Peichl, L. (2010). Retinal photoreceptors of two subterranean tuco-tuco species (Rodentia, Ctenomys): Morphology, topography, and spectral sensitivity The Journal of Comparative Neurology, 518 (19), 4001-4015 DOI: 10.1002/cne.22440

Seyfarth, R., Cheney, D., & Marler, P. (1980). Monkey responses to three different alarm calls: evidence of predator classification and semantic communication Science, 210 (4471), 801-803 DOI: 10.1126/science.7433999

Slobodchikoff CN, Paseka A, & Verdolin JL (2009). Prairie dog alarm calls encode labels about predator colors. Animal cognition, 12 (3), 435-9 PMID: 19116730

Referential labelling in Diana Monkeys

ResearchBlogging.org Ok, so I was going to write an essay for my Origins of Language module on this but then got distracted by syntax (again) so I thought I’d put my thoughts in a blog post just so they don’t go to waste.

Diana monkeys, like vervet monkeys, use alarm calls to communicate the presence of a predator to other monkeys.

They produce (and respond to) different alarm calls corresponding to how close the predator is, whether the predator is above or below them and whether the predator is a leopard or an eagle.  They respond instantly regardless of how imminent an attack is.

In this post I will explore some of the evidence relating to how sophisticated the Diana monkey’s understanding of the call’s meaning is and also the mental mechanisms relating to the call’s production.

Zuberbühler (2000a) discusses some types of species which have alarm calls but instead of each alarm call representing a different predator, each alarm call represents a different level (or types) of danger. The aim of the Zuberbühler paper then, was to set out if this was the case for Diana monkeys or if they really did have referential ‘labels’ for different predators.

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