Thursday, December 29, 2011

Snake on a plain

Vervet monkeys call out when they see a member of an enemy species, with different calls for different predators, so that their friends know what to do--for a leopard, get as high up a tree as you can; for an eagle, dive for cover. It is an instinctive response, however, not something the monkey learns to do, a language that can be changed from generation to generation.

Chimpanzees, on the other hand, our very close relatives, apparently think about it before making an alarm call--think about what it is they've seen and who needs to know, according to this report in the Guardian of a field experiment conducted in the Budongo forest, Uganda.

The experiment involved leaving a toy snake in the animals' path, and filming their reactions. The apes would jump back in alarm, come back to check it out, and only then deliver the warning call--mostly to chimps they knew had not seen the snake for themselves.

The suggestion is that chimps make use of what used to be called a "theory of mind"; that is, they are aware that the other chimps are thinking, and imagine what's on their minds, a skill once thought very exclusively human--they are empathic. Stories like this always make me inordinately happy, without my understanding exactly why.

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