One of the ways that physical anthropologists learn about people is to study our nearest living relatives – primates. Primates include any member of the group of animals that includes human beings, apes, and monkeys. Learning about how primates navigate their world helps us understand the challenges and survival strategies that humans had to face in the past.
Primatologists, or specialists who study primates, are especially interested in learning how primates address one of the biggest issues that we all face: how to feed your family. Each primate species has a different from of social organization, although all primate species have to figure out how to survive against the odds. Factors that figure in to those odds include the proximity of other groups, competition for resources, the availability of high-calorie foods, and the need to protect the sensitive members of one’s group from predators.
This week’s activity pitted student groups against each other in a Meddling Monkeys Scavenger Hunt. In the MMSH, student groups were tasked with getting as many calories as possible by “foraging” throughout the classroom. Foods were represented by different colors of slips of paper and were placed with varying frequency throughout the classroom. The highest calorie foods, fruits, were worth 5 points. Fruits were present but were not the most common type of food in the scavenger hunt. Animal protein accounted for another category of the food in the scavenger hunt, being worth 2 points. Common sources include ants, insects, or grubs. The most common food source in the scavenger hunt, and in actual environments, included leaves and vegetation. In the game, a cluster of leaves was worth 1 point.
Students were divided into groups and were asked to come up with a survival strategy that permitted them to gather the most calories while still protecting the two primate babies that were given to each group. These babies were worth 10 points and could be stolen if the nest was not properly guarded. At the end, the group with the most calories (points) won.
Students can only carry one item at a time, as primates are not bipedal (except humans).
Students were asked to walk in various ways to lengthen the game, including hopping on one foot, knuckle-walking, crab-walking, and walking with their hands behind their back.
Babies can be stolen if not guarded. Two group members must be at the nest to protect the babies (not one).
If a group loses both of their babies, the group automatically loses.
At the end of the class period, the scores were tallied and each group was asked to weigh their choices against their relative success. Interestingly, only one group was able to steal a baby. And while such an acquisition may seem to signal success, a different group ended up with the highest number of points (or calories). That suggests that the most effective strategy for success may be more complex that focusing on a single, high-calorie resource.
At the end of the day, our class also got to try one of the delicacies of the primate diet – roasted crickets!
Here are a few of the brave TMSE students who elected to give our crickets a try!
Others were more reluctant, but most of our students were willing to give it a shot.
In the end, our TMSE students learned about foraging strategies, the benefits of group membership, and even some of the downsides of being social. AND they got to sample a tasty treat!
Check back in next week, as we will start talking about human variation and genetic variability.