Not Exactly Rocket Science

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchFrom the carpenter choosing the right strength of drill, or the artist selecting the right weight of pencil, humans have a natural talent for picking the right tool for the job. Now, it seems that monkeys are similarly selective about their tools. In the first study of its kind, Elisabetta Visalberghi from the National Research Council, Italy, found that capuchin monkeys are able to pick stones with the right properties for nutcracking.

i-430a2600ad6d0ec1b58da76b3bccdcdf-Black-stripedCapuchin.jpgCapuchins often use stones to crack otherwise impenetrable nuts upon hard, flat surfaces, turning innocuous forest objects into their own hammers and anvils. By examining their cracking sites, Visalberghi deduced that the animals were picky about their hammers, for the sites were littered with hard and heavy rocks that weighed as much as 40% of an adult. However, it was entirely possible that the monkeys used any old rocks and those that remained were simply the ones that hadn’t eroded yet.

Visalberghi decided to put eight wild capuchins to the test by allowing them to choose between sets of potential hammers. These monkeys regularly use stones to break into palm nuts and they need heavy, hard materials for the job. Visalberghi removed all the stones from the experimental arena and provided the capuchins with a choice of two – one of which would excel as a nutcracker and another which would not. The monkeys selected the right stone at least 90% of the time, correctly picking solid siltstone over crumbly sandstone, and big quartzile stones over small ones.

In both cases, the stones were natural ones of the type that the monkeys regularly encounter in their habitat. No surprise then that the animals immediately and confidently singled out the right tool. But Visalberghi found that they did just as well when choosing between artificial stones – they just spent more time examining the different options on offer.

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Normally, capuchins know that a bigger stone is probably going to be a heavier one. When they were given two stones of the same size but different densities, they spent a bit of time on investigation. They picked both up, weighed them in their hands and tapped them, before making off with the heavier one. Tapping was important – capuchins use it to tell full nuts from empty ones, and while they never tapped natural stones, they often used the trick to discern between artificial stones of unexpected densities.

If Visalberghi gave them a light, large stone and a heavy, small one, those that picked the small one immediately walked away with it; if they picked up the lighter stone first, they checked the other option out before choosing that instead. These monkeys have a very good idea about what they want from their hammers and again, they made the right choice on over 85% of the trials.

As final proof of the monkeys’ deliberate decision-making, Visalberghi showed that when they examined both options, they switched from the wrong stone to the right one far more often than they did the other way round.

In a way, the excellent performance of these capuchins shouldn’t come as a surprise – they are, after all, very intelligent animals. But it’s worth noting that captive capuchins behave differently; they’re still choosy but much less successful in their choices than their wild counterparts. It just goes to show that we need to be careful about making generalisations about wild behaviour by looking at captive individuals that lack the full breadth of experience that their free-range peers have.

Reference: Current Biology 10.1016/j.cub.2008.11.064

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Comments

  1. #1 DDeden
    January 15, 2009

    They also use oyster shells to pry oysters off of mangrove trunks, so they understand both the head and claw of a hammer. They’ll be building little rainforest cottages soon.

  2. #2 Paul Murray
    January 15, 2009

    I saw a black-faced macaque make and use a tool at a zoo once. It grabbed some brushwood from its enclosure, stripped the branches, put the remaining thick twig in a hole in a (railway) sleeper and used that support as leverage so that it could use it’s body weight to snap it to a convenient length, then it took the remaining stick began poking it up into a faucet in its enclosure. (The handles get removed, of course, in monkey enclosures. It was a very hot summer, and I assume it was trying to get fresh water out of the faucet).

    Changed my ideas a bit – I had bought the whole “Man: the tool-user” thing.

  3. #3 spyra
    January 19, 2009

    Cool article. If expertise comes with experience, then it’s no surprise that zoo monkeys are less successful– they probably haven’t had to crack as many nuts as their wild counterparts.

    In addition to aquatic mammals and monkeys, crows are also very clever. I once saw a video of a crow presented with a straight wire and a tub with a bucket with food at the bottom. The bird can’t reach the food on its own, but was very quickly able to bend the wire into a hook to fish the bucket out. What’s more interesting was that while both males and females had similar success, males in the presence of females would back off and let the female fish the food out first, then steal the food from her when he has the chance.