Primate Food and Communication

Speaking of communication (pun intended–get it?), we wanted to share with the kids how our closest living non-human relatives communicate. How is human communication and symbolic behavior similar or different than other primates? We started by talking about some of the basic similarities and differences between us and other primates (video of primate skulls). For instance, the kids suggested that the space program sent chimps into space before humans because they are so much like humans, that we would be able to understand how human bodies would respond by seeing how chimp bodies responded.

But what we really wanted to get at is how primates learn. Do they learn by going to school like humans? Certainly not. Humans purposefully teach, while other primates tend to learn by watching. For instance, how does a young ape or monkey know what to eat or what not to eat? To explore this, our activity involved presenting the kids with a variety of possible primate foods, but not the kind human primates from Tuscaloosa are necessarily used to seeing. We presented them with an omnivore’s dilemma–what do I eat when my choices are insects (roasted crickets with salt, in this case), nuts (without nutcrackers), a variety of plant leaves and vegetables, and a giant spiky fruit that smells like dirty sweat socks? The differences in the wild, of course, are that our young primates would have to catch the bugs (but we are preadapted for that with 3-D vision and nimble fingers), climb to the leaves, figure out how to open the nut without pulverizing it, and avoid poisoning oneself (we brought in all non-toxic vegetation for this exercise). As the kids discovered, the best ways to figure out what to eat are to watch what other animals of your species eat and then take a little nibble. One child found he had a taste for insectivory, eating the crickets like dry roasted peanuts, while another found he had a taste for banana peppers straight off the vine. Most found the spikes of the durian fruit formidable when there was so much else available. However, many of the leaves were tough and chewy without something to wash them down.

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