Gift-giving is at its peak this time of year. As much as we all enjoy receiving gifts, there is also joy in giving gifts to others. Seeking such selfless enjoyment is an important social behavior, and thanks to a new study published in Nature Neuroscience this week, there’s evidence that humans may not be the only species to pursue these social rewards.
Researchers at Duke University tracked the brain activity of rhesus macaques making simple sharing decisions. In one scenario the monkeys could choose to keep a reward (juice) or give it to another monkey. Most kept the juice. In the second scenario the monkeys could choose to give the juice to another monkey, or to have the reward removed. Most gifted the juice.
Researchers have announced the birth of three unusual, though healthy, baby monkeys. They are the first non-mouse chimeras—creatures made up of cells from multiple other parents—to be created by science.
Making chimeric mice is a time-consuming but fairly routine part of biology these days: embryos are injected with modified cultured stem cells containing the traits the researchers desire (like glowing in the dark). Those embryos grow up into mice who have some glow-in-the-dark cells and some normal cells, called chimeras. These chimeras are useful because if any of them have glow-in-the-dark sperm or eggs, they can be bred with each other to produce babies who are 100% glow-in-the-dark.
How do you do to measure radiation levels in the hard-to-reach forests near Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi plant? Why, fit wild monkeys with radiation sensors, of course! Researcher Takayuki Takahashi tells CNN that his team plans to fit three monkeys in early 2012 with collars that measure radiation, as well as GPS units that record location and distance from the ground. The researchers plan to leave the monitors in place for about a month, before detaching them via remote control and picking up them up to retrieve their stored data.
What’s the News: The left and right halves of the brain have separate stores for working memory, the information we actively keep in mind, suggests a study published online yesterday by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. People can, on average, hold only four pieces of information in working memory—say, where four strangers are seated in a room. The current study suggests that, in fact, working memory capacity is two plus two—two items stored in each side of the brain—rather than four items stored anywhere. This understanding could be used to design learning techniques and visual displays that maximize working memory capacity.
Luis Populin never meant to study whether monkeys recognize themselves in the mirror. As DISCOVER blogger Carl Zimmer notes at the Loom, Populin’s team was working on a different project that required putting mirrors in monkey cages to stimulate their brains. Quite by accident, he noticed that monkeys with electrodes attached by the researchers spent an awful long time gawking at themselves in the mirrors.
The researchers published their findings this week in PLoS One, in which they write:
We hypothesize that the head implant, a most salient mark, prompted the monkeys to overcome gaze aversion inhibition or lack of interest in order to look and examine themselves in front of the mirror. The results of this study demonstrate that rhesus monkeys do recognize themselves in the mirror and, therefore, have some form of self-awareness.
For a video of a monkey checking itself out in the mirror, as well as much more detail about the study, its implications, and other primatologists’ doubts about it, check out Zimmer’s post.
80beats: Crazy-Looking Redbearded Monkey Turned Up in Colombia (PHOTOS)
80beats: Fossil May Reveal When Humanity’s Ape Ancestors Split from Monkeys
80beats: Monkey Schoolmarms: Vervet Monkeys Learn Better From Female Teachers
80beats: New Caledonian Crows—the Bird Geniuses—Blow Our Minds Again
Image: Populin et. al.
In this week’s Nature Medicine, a study brings a ray of success in researchers’ quest to fight the deadly viruses Ebola and Marburg. Testing a new approach on monkeys, scientists at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases saw most of the monkeys survive a normally fatal Ebola infection—and all of them who had Marburg lived.
Within an hour of infecting the primates, researchers gave them antisense phosphorodiamidate morpholino oligomers, or PMOs.
The morpholino oligomers are a new class of drugs in a family of what is known as antisense nucleotides. Antisense nucleotides are designed to bind tightly to specific areas of viral messenger RNA, blocking replication. Such compounds already are being used to treat certain types of cancer and cytomegalovirus infections, and they are being tested against HIV [Los Angeles Times].
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The good news: After decades of wondering whether this immaculately bearded monkey really existed, but not being able to confirm it because of never-ending violence in Colombia, scientists say they’ve finally found evidence of the Caqueta titi monkey. The bad news: Because of habitat destruction, the cat-sized redbeard primate is critically endangered.
The new species joins about 20 other titi monkeys known in the Amazon basin. They appear to be monogamous to a level that puts humans to shame, says expedition leader Thomas Defler, whose study (pdf) appears in Primate Conservation. The Caqueta monkey couples have about one child per year that they raise together, and that isn’t the end of their absurd adorableness. Read More
Perhaps you’re one of those people who get their dander up when you hear creationists saying “I’m not descended from some monkey” not only for the obvious reason, but also because you can’t help but blurt out, “No, you mean ‘ape!’ We’re apes, not monkeys.”
Indeed, our superfamily, Hominoidea, split from the group labeled “old world monkeys” millions of years ago—but perhaps not as many million as we thought. In Nature this week, a team of scientists report on a 28-29 million year old fossil that appears to predate the split, meaning the separation would have happened more recently than other studies suggested.
The partial skull of this new creature, which the team dubbed Saadanius hijazensis, turned up in Saudi Arabia in February 2009.
When vervet monkeys play follow the leader, they prefer to follow a female. That was the conclusion of Erica van de Waal, whose lengthy study of these primates in South Africa will be published this week in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B. When her team presented them with a tricky contraption they had to open to reach a tasty snack, the monkeys learned better if they watched a female from their group demonstrate the solution rather than a male.
Seeking some answers to how social learning works in monkeys, van de Waal and her colleagues headed to Loskop Dam Nature Reserve. It took four months, they say, just to acclimate the wild animals to the presence of humans. Once the monkeys were comfortable having scientists around, Van de Waal gave each group a wooden box containing a slice of apple. To get to the apple, the monkeys had to either pull open the door at one end or slide aside a door at the other. Half the box was painted black to differentiate the two ends [ScienceNOW].
Birds, whales, monkeys, and other animals constantly demonstrate simple communication through a variety of sounds. But one thing that has always separated them from humans, scientists thought, is that they haven’t achieved syntax—stringing together multiple different sounds to create another meaning, or what we might think of as a sentence. Now, in a study published in yesterday’s Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers argue that they have observed monkeys using these rudimentary rules of grammar.
Klaus Zuberbühler and his team previously established the meanings of specific calls among the Campbell’s monkeys in the Tai National Park of the Ivory Coast, like the sound they dubbed “krak,” which by itself means a leopard approaches. This time, however, they documented call combinations. The monkeys can vary the call by adding the suffix “-oo”: “krak-oo” seems to be a general word for predator, but one given in a special context — when monkeys hear but do not see a predator, or when they hear the alarm calls of another species known as the Diana monkey [The New York Times].