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8 of the Animal Kingdom’s Most Clever Problem Solvers

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Who ever said Mr. Fix-it had to be human?

1. Crows Make Dining Utensils

They say humans are toolmakers, but crows may be just as handy. The birds are known to pry out grubs buried inside trees with twigs. They’ll then strip off the twig’s bark and bend the end, turning it into a hook to dig out food. (Humans are the only other animals that use hooks!)

2. Hyenas Are Brilliant Teammates

To test whether hyenas were team players, researchers built a rig with two dangling ropes. When both ropes were yanked at the same time, a trap door opened, revealing a stash of food. Not only did hyenas work together to pull the ropes, they did it without training (monkeys, on the other hand, needed lots of help from humans to pass the test). Experienced hyenas even taught rookies in their pack how to do it.

3. Bees Are Efficient Architects

Honeycombs are the most efficient structures in nature. They use the least amount of wax for their size, and the hexagonal design makes the structure amazingly strong. It took humans over 2000 years of puzzling to figure that out!

4. Cows Celebrate a Job Well Done

Research shows that cows can feel emotions like fear and anxiety (and they even worry about the future). Cows also love to fix problems. A 2004 study found that when young cows solve problems, their heart rates increase. They even jump and kick when arriving at a solution—telltale signs that cows love having Eureka moments as much as we do.

5. Clark’s Nutcrackers Are Nature’s Traveling Salesmen

Pretend it’s errand time. You have to visit the supermarket, the pharmacy, and three other stores. All five are at separate locations. What’s the most efficient way to get to each one? Mathematicians call this “the traveling salesman problem,” and it’s harder than you think—it can even stump our best computers. However, it’s a snap for Clark’s Nutcrackers. Each year, these birds collect thousands of pine nuts and bury them in small stashes. When they return to pick up the goodies, not only do they remember where everything is, they can also calculate the fastest route to get them.

6. Pigs Rock at Video Games

When scientists built a snout-controlled game in which pigs had to move a shape across a computer screen and match it with a corresponding shape, they were naturals—they even performed better than some monkeys. Pigs are so smart that European regulators require pig farmers to provide “mentally-stimulating activity” for their swine (boredom makes pigs aggressive), and researchers designed a special video game to keep European pigs busy.

7. Parrots Are Feathered Linguists

Parrots aren’t capable of language, but they are good at imitating it. A parrot named Alex actually learned 100 English words, many of which he picked up without the motivation of food. Amazingly, Alex was able to make up words, too (he called apples “Banerries”—a blend of bananas and cherries). One time, when another parrot mispronounced a word, Alex yelled, “Talk clearly!”

8. Pigeons Make For Great Game Show Contestants

When researchers mapped the brain of pigeons, they discovered the areas for long-term memory and problem solving were wired just like a human’s. Pigeons are also better at game shows than us—studies show that pigeons play Monty Hall at a significantly higher success rate than humans.

Want to learn more about these clever and creative creatures? Tune in to Nova tonight at 9 pm Eastern/8 pm Central on PBS’s Think Wednesday lineup.

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9 Reasons to Love the Amazing Snow Monkey
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Snow monkeys (also known as Japanese macaques) are a cute, fun-loving bunch. Adorable as they may be, there’s much more to this primate than just a pretty face.

1. They Are Social Creatures (Very Social)

Snow monkeys live in groups called “troops,” which can include up to 500 of the primates (although it’s usually closer to 100). Things get crowded, but are largely kept in order because…

2. Female Snow Monkeys Run the Show

While males end up leaving the troops around the age of four, their female counterparts stick around for their entire lives. The females are responsible for socialization and are to thank for keeping the multiple families within each troop in line.

3. They’re Big on Collaborative Grooming

Snow monkeys groom each other for more than just cleanliness—it’s also their way of hanging out and being social. In fact, almost one-third of a snow monkey’s day is spent grooming other members of the troop (compared to the 1% of the day they spend cleaning themselves).

4. They Know How to Chill

Snow monkeys are world-famous spa-lovers. They spend tons of time bathing in hot springs with their friends and family and, like humans, dig the aprés ski lifestyle.

5. They Monkey Around

When not grooming or bathing, snow monkeys have been observed having some rambunctious fun—they occasionally roll and throw snowballs around.

6. They Are Real Chatterboxes

Snow monkeys have multiple coos and calls for different situations. They have calls to alert others that it’s grooming time, ones to welcome new monkeys into the troop, and coos to calm aggressive individuals during squabbles. They often respond to these calls with their own coos and have little conversations throughout the day.

7. They Speak With Accents

Studies have shown that snow monkeys in one region will have differently pitched coos than those of troops miles away.

8. They Can Handle a Winter

With a range that extends as far north as the tip of the Japanese island of Honshu, snow monkeys live further north than any other primate except humans. Snow monkeys can handle temperatures that dip below 15 degrees F, but they probably complained about this year’s extra-cold winter, too.

9. They Are Smart, With a Capital “S”

Scientists once observed a female snow monkey washing dirt off a sweet potato before she ate it. Soon, her companions picked up on this behavior and began to clean their own food as well, behavior that’s only observed in raccoons, humans, and snow monkeys. They also appear to be foodies – the snow monkeys began seasoning the potatoes in seawater to give the food a tasty kick.

Want to learn more about the amazing snow monkey? Tune in to Nature tonight at 8 pm Eastern/7 pm Central on PBS’s Think Wednesday lineup.

All images courtesy of Thinkstock

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6 Traits Humans Inherited from Monkeys
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Humans didn’t evolve from modern monkeys, but if you trace the branches of our family tree far enough, you’ll realize that we share a common ancestor. Here’s what they left us with.

1. Coccyx, Our Former Tail

Why does falling on your tush hurt so much? Because the tailbone is a remnant of your long-lost tail. (For about four weeks, human embryos have a tail. In rare cases, people are born with them!) The tail disappeared millions of years ago when hominids started walking upright and no longer needed it for balance. However, its absence has left the bottom of our spinal columns exposed. That’s why your coccyx is so easy to bruise and break.

2. Our Complex Hands

Primates are the only mammals with opposable thumbs. Notharctus, a lemur-like monkey that lived 50 million years ago, was the first ape to develop human-like hands: A thumb, long fingers, and nails instead of claws. Why? They were—and still are—perfect for clinging to tree branches!

3. The Ability to See Colors

For millions of years, our ancestors were red-green colorblind. But thanks to receptors called “opsins,” everything went technicolor around 23 million years ago. Most colorblind animals have two sets of opsin genes. Humans, however, have three—and that third gene makes all the difference. Scientists posit that millennia ago, an opsin gene duplicated and mutated and was a huge advantage. (Scientists have confirmed this hypothesis by planting a third opsin gene in the retina of colorblind squirrel monkeys. The experiment gave them human-like color-vision.)

4. Our Crummy Sense of Smell

You can’t have it all. As our sense of vision got better, our sense of smell got worse. We have thousands of genes for smell, but nearly 600 of them don’t work anymore.

5. The Ability to Take a Stroll

For about 365 million years, most animals walked on all fours. But around 4.4 million years ago, a woodland primate called ardipithecus stood up and walked with an awkward wobble. After a couple million years, australopithecus emerged (its most famous member is “Lucy”). Just like humans', its knees bent inward, making walking more natural.

6. Our Bad Backs

Walking came with a cost: it ruined our backs. In order to stay balanced, our ancestors developed an “S-shaped” spine, which—as we all know—leads to kinks, knots, sciatica, and all sorts of pain. But all that aching might be worth it. Standing freed up our hands and gave us a chance to make tools.

Want to learn more about our monkey relatives? Tune in to Your Inner Fish tonight at 10 pm Eastern/9 pm Central on PBS’s Think Wednesday lineup.


All images courtesy of Thinkstock

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