Scientifically Speaking | Self-medicating and musical monkeys: Surprising studies show human-like behaviours in primates - Hindustan Times
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Scientifically Speaking | Self-medicating and musical monkeys: Surprising studies show human-like behaviours in primates

ByAnirban Mahapatra
May 20, 2024 09:00 AM IST

Recent studies reveal that some primates share human-like behaviours. These studies highlight the evolutionary roots of behaviours we consider uniquely human.

What makes us human? It’s a question that has fascinated scientists and philosophers for centuries. Activities such as tapping our fingers to create a rhythm to using medicine to heal ourselves are often considered uniquely human capabilities.

Primates sit in the sun at the Fort Worth Zoo in Fort Worth, Texas, Friday, Feb. 23, 2024. (AP Photo/LM Otero)(AP) PREMIUM
Primates sit in the sun at the Fort Worth Zoo in Fort Worth, Texas, Friday, Feb. 23, 2024. (AP Photo/LM Otero)(AP)

Now, a pair of new studies show that some of our close living animal relatives share human behaviours with us. They can use plants to heal wounds and tap along to music. These discoveries indicate that some behaviours we consider uniquely human might have deep evolutionary roots which we share with our primate relatives.

In one study by researchers at the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behaviour and the University of Zurich, published in Scientific Reports on May 2, a male Sumatran orangutan named Rakus in the Gunung Leuser National Park in northern Sumatra, Indonesia demonstrated the ability to self-medicate using a medicinal plant. After getting a facial injury during a fight with another primate, Rakus was seen chewing the leaves of a plant called Fibraurea tinctoria, which helps reduce pain and swelling. He then applied the chewed leaves to his wound like a natural bandage.

This is the first well-recorded case of a wild animal using a plant with known healing properties to directly treat a would. They believe it shows the advanced thinking abilities of orangutans. In addition, our ancestors might have also used similar methods to treat wounds.

Rakus' behaviour highlights the sophisticated understanding some animals have of their environment. By selecting specific plants known to have medicinal properties, orangutans like Rakus show a level of problem-solving and self-care that we normally associate only with humans. It's fascinating to think that these primates may be passing on such knowledge to their offspring or other members of their group.

Other studies have shown that animals like chimpanzees and other monkeys also use plants to help themselves. For example, chimpanzees chew the bitter pith of a plant called Vernonia amygdalina to treat infections, and orangutans in Borneo are known to rub themselves with a plant that reduces pain and swelling. These behaviours suggest a deep evolutionary history of self-medication that may go back to our common ancestors with these primates.

In another study by researchers at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, posted as a preprint in March 2024, which has not been peer-reviewed on bioRxiv yet, macaque monkeys were shown to learn to tap to the beat of music.

Previously, it was known that some animals with complex vocalisations, like humans and songbirds, can synchronise their movements to music. In the current study, researchers trained macaques to tap along with a metronome. After mastering this, the monkeys were introduced to more complex music, including songs by Barry White, Billy Bragg, and the Backstreet Boys.

While humans naturally tap along to music, the macaques needed a lot of training. They didn't always tap at the same moments as humans, and their rhythm was less consistent. However, the fact that they could learn this skill suggests that the ability to perceive and tap to a beat might be more common in the animal kingdom than previously thought. This study challenges the idea that only species with advanced vocal abilities can synchronise to a beat.

The ability to tap to a beat might exist in many species, depending on their ability to associate rhythm with rewards. The monkeys' ability to learn rhythm also opens new questions about the neural mechanisms behind musicality. If animals without complex vocal abilities can learn to tap to a beat, the brain structures required for this skill might be more ancient and widespread than appreciated.

Nature holds so many surprises for us. These two studies show that some behaviours we consider uniquely human are shared with our primate relatives.

Anirban Mahapatra is a scientist and author, most recently of the popular science book, When The Drugs Don’t Work: The Hidden Pandemic That Could End Medicine. The views expressed are personal.

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