Tuesday, July 5

When you look into the monkey, the monkey looks into you

Monkey steals camera to snap himself

A macaque monkey in Indonesia took a camera from a wildlife photographer before snapping himself in a variety of poses.
You talkin' to me? You talkin' to me?

The black macaque, one of the more eerie looking monkeys around. I say this a lot, but there's something about those eyes. However, one must remember that while these two pictures are quite a sight, there are probably seventy more of the monkey rubbing his fur against the lens. I'd really like to see all of those, actually.

The picture I've selected is almost certainly an example of aggressive behavior, however. It would be easier to tell with a few more frames, but the bared teeth and the lifted eyebrows. This monkey is looking into a dark, reflective lens, and does not realize that this mirror image is him. He believes it is a different monkey, at least something that is being threatening right back at him.

This reminds me of an idea we had among the researchers. We were out there all day, and as I have noted, the baboons have a particular liking for cars. Since the baboons would swarm over a car, whether new or old, we've been able to witness some interesting behaviors. A slightly reflective windshield does not differ much from a camera lens, and if the monkeys looked into the windshield, one could assess whether or not they were self-aware based on their reaction to seeing their own image.

This also could have yielded an extra effect over the range of ages. A car is sort of like a trophy for certain baboons. The adults give a damn one way or the other about the cars as long as they aren't trying to run the troop over. The largest of the juveniles, even subadults, quickly lay claim to the highest point on the car (the roof), leaving the hood, side mirrors, trunk, and bumpers for the smaller baboons to ensconce themselves on.

The mirrors and windshields created interesting effects from what I did observe on the side. For the young ones, the mirrors were clearly frightening, so there's no theory of mind there. I never determined if the older males reacted in the same way, as they messed around with the mirrors much less. The potential exists for something bigger, however. Put some big mirrors under the windshield, and watch all the monkeys react. You could even introduce a laser pointer to the experiment and to take a kind of mirror recognition approach.

I do not think that an experiment like that would yield positive results, though. A little evidence exists that macaques can pass mirror self-recognition tests, but the majority of research has indicated that they cannot. Baboons might be a different story, but baboons are even more socially adept than macaques, which means that their intelligence is focused on understanding conspecifics, but not necessarily themselves.

Properly controlling this experiment would be kind of a nightmare, but it might have been well suited enough for a pilot study. The large sample size and strong spread of individuals in different age groups is a major strength of working with baboons in general. To my knowledge, not much longitudinal work has been done in wild baboons where the focus has been on the juvenile years. This is a time where social bonds are more malleable, and less clear to everyone. It would be great to better understand social and cognitive development during these formative years, but I freely admit that several lifetimes of work would probably be required to lay the foundations of this research.