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Wikimedia // Public Domain
Wikimedia // Public Domain

Sir Richard Francis Burton's Attempt to Learn Monkey Language

Wikimedia // Public Domain
Wikimedia // Public Domain

In the 20th century and beyond, several research programs explored the ability of apes to communicate with human sign language, including primate celebrities such as Washoe the chimpanzee, Nim Chimpsky, and Koko the gorilla. Charles Darwin himself wondered if human language might have evolved from the musical cries of our ape-like ancestors, asking in one of his Notebooks: "Did our language commence with singing … do monkeys howl in harmony?"

But before Washoe, Nim, and Koko—and even before Darwin—the famed British explorer, ethnographer, and writer Sir Richard Francis Burton made an eccentric attempt to bridge the communications gap by starting a residential school for monkeys and trying to learn the language of their calls and cries.

Burton owed the success of many of his explorations to an extraordinary ability to learn foreign languages. During a life of military adventure and travel in the far reaches of the British Empire, he is said to have learned to speak more than 20 languages with fluency, including Turkish, Persian, Hindustani, Gujarati, Punjabi, and Pashtu. He famously staked his life on his Arabic in 1853, when he entered the Muslim holy cities of Mecca and Medina (then forbidden to Europeans) in disguise as a pilgrim on the hajj.

In the 1840s, Burton was a junior officer in the army of the British East India Company, stationed in the province of Sindh, now in Pakistan. According to his wife, Isabel (née Arundell), who published a version of his journals after his death in 1890, Burton was drawn to the chatter of the wild monkeys in the streets of the city and decided to try and learn what they were saying.

In The Life of Captain Sir Richard F. Burton [PDF], Isabel described how Burton moved into a house with a troop of monkeys and set about trying to learn their language. "He at one time got rather tired of the daily Mess, and living with men, and he thought he should like to learn the manners, customs, and habits of monkeys," she wrote, "so he collected forty monkeys, of all kinds of ages, races, species, and he lived with them." His goal, Isabel wrote, was "ascertaining and studying the language of monkeys, so that he used regularly to talk to them, and pronounce their sounds afterwards, till he and the monkeys at last got quite to understand each other."

Burton also issued the monkeys with honorary titles and monkey-sized costumes that he thought suited their characters: "He had his doctor, his chaplain, his secretary, his aide-de-camp, his agent, and one tiny one, a very pretty, small, silky-looking monkey, he used to call his wife, and put pearls in her ears," Isabel explained.

The dinner table provided opportunities for teaching etiquette: Burton presided over the meals, all served by Burton’s servants. "They all sat down on chairs at meals, and the servants waited on them, and each had its bowl and plate, with the food and drinks proper for them," Isabel wrote. "He sat at the head of the table, and the pretty little monkey sat by him in a high baby's chair … he had a little whip on the table, with which he used to keep them in order when they had bad manners, which did sometimes occur, as they frequently used to get jealous of the little monkey, and try to claw her."

Burton repeated the monkeys' sounds over and over until he believed he understood some of them. According to Isabel, Burton learned to identify up to 60 monkey "words," which he recorded in a "monkey vocabulary." But around 1845, he moved on from Sindh and his monkey school, on his way to what became more famous adventures: visiting the forbidden city of Harar in what is now Ethiopia; getting speared through the cheek by Somali warriors (surviving with the scars to prove it); and seeking the source of the Nile in East Africa. Although Burton had hoped to one day return to his animal language research, his journals of his time in Sindh and his monkey vocabulary were destroyed in 1861 after a fire at a London warehouse where his belongings were being stored. Sadly, many of the details of his experiments have been lost to history.

Burton's experiments seemed fairly bizarre to his contemporaries, but they might seem less so today. More than 150 years after his efforts, scientists look to our primate relatives for clues to the origin of human language. One recent study found that macaque monkeys have all the physical organs necessary to produce human-like speech; what they lack is our brainpower. "If they had the brain, they could produce intelligible speech," Princeton neuroscientist Asif A. Ghazanfar told The New York Times. No doubt Sir Richard Francis Burton would have been among the first to try and write it down.

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Animals
7 Fun Facts for Elephant Appreciation Day
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Happy Elephant Appreciation Day! Celebrate the occasion with some facts about everyone's favorite gentle giant. 

1. ELEPHANTS CAN RECOGNIZE OTHER ELEPHANT CARCASSES.


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The University of Sussex's Karen McComb told National Geographic that elephants "become excited and agitated if they come across a dead elephant," and, in particular, will investigate skulls and tusks. McComb teamed up with researchers at the Amboseli Elephant Research Project in Kenya to study the behavior, showing wild elephants a range of objects that included skulls. They found that the elephants examined skulls—and tusks in particular—of their own kind twice as long as other skulls, and examined tusks six times as long as they did pieces of wood. They were even able to recognize elephant skulls with the tusks removed, but didn't show preference for certain elephant skulls over others, which suggests they didn't know which skulls belonged to their own relatives. "Animals that are intensely social in life may be most likely to display an interest in their dead," McComb told National Geographic. "But what goes on in their minds while they are doing this is a total mystery."

2. THEY'RE SCARED OF BEES.


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Forget about mice scaring off elephants: When farmers need to keep elephants away from their crops, they should use bees. Researchers in Kenya discovered that even the recorded sound of buzzing bees was enough to make elephants retreat—and cause them to emit a low-frequency sound, inaudible to humans, that warns other elephants of the bees' presence.

"It's impossible to cover Africa in electric fences," Lucy King, author of the paper, told The Huffington Post. "The infrastructure doesn't exist in many places and it would restrict animals' movement." But something like a bee fence—hives strung on strong wires a certain distance apart that would move when elephants walked into them, disturbing the hives—"could be a better way to direct elephants away from farmers' crops," she said.

3. THEY MIGHT UNDERSTAND POINTING.


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Humans often use pointing as a way to nonverbally get a message across, though not many other animals grasp the concept. But according to a two-month study of 11 tame African elephants, these pachyderms might be able to: When presented with two identical buckets and pointed in the direction of the one containing food, elephants picked up on the cue fairly consistently: Elephants had a success rate of 67.5 percent (1-year-old humans have a success rate of 72.7 percent). But an earlier study of Asian elephants indicated that they don’t notice pointing gestures, which is a bit of a mystery.

4. ONE ELEPHANT CAN "TALK." 


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Koshik, an elephant in a South Korean zoo, developed the ability to imitate the sounds of five words he's heard from his trainer—annyeong (hello), anja (sit down), aniya (no), nuwo (lie down), and joa (good)—by sticking his trunk in his mouth. The scientists who first noticed Koshik’s ability speculate that he learned to “talk” because he was lonely.

5. THEY'RE DIGITIGRADES.


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It's Latin for "finger walking," and what it means is that elephants walk on their toes (there are five of them, as well a sixth false toe). According to the book Mammal Anatomy: An Illustrated Guidemost of the animals' weight "rests on a broad pad of elastic tissue behind the toes" which "acts as a shock absorber and prevents the skeleton from jolting too much when the animals walk. It also allows elephants to move surprisingly quietly despite their size."

6. AN ELEPHANT PREGNANCY LASTS ABOUT TWO YEARS.


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If you thought being pregnant for nine months was a long time, be glad you're not an elephant, which can be pregnant for up to 680 days, according to the BBC. All that time in the oven has a benefit, though: Elephant calves are born with highly-developed brains, capable of learning their herd's complex social structures and ready to put their trunks to use.

7. NINETY-SIX ELEPHANTS ARE KILLED IN AFRICA EVERY DAY.


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Unfortunately, elephant poaching remains a very big problem: An estimated 35,000 elephants are killed annually, their tusks sold illegally in the ivory market. Do the math, and that comes out to nearly 96 elephants every day. Find out what you can do to help elephants and stop poaching at 96Elephants.org.

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Yani Dubin via Flickr Creative Commons // CC BY-ND 2.0
Bumblebees Mark Their Trails With Tiny Scented "Footprints"
Yani Dubin via Flickr Creative Commons // CC BY-ND 2.0
Yani Dubin via Flickr Creative Commons // CC BY-ND 2.0

Bees seem to have an endless number of tricks up their sleeve—and on their feet. Scientists have discovered that bumblebees leave itty-bitty scented “footprints” on every flower they visit, thereby informing other foragers that the bloom’s been recently tapped. The researchers published their findings in the journal Nature Scientific Reports.

Bees are the queens of complex communication. They exchange information with one another and their environments using a dazzling array of sensory input, including electrical impulses, sound, dance, and chemical signals.

Some of those signals flow out into the world through the bees’ delicate little feet. The bottom segment of a bee’s leg, called the tarsus, secretes a scented goo that helps the bee stick to the soft surfaces of flower petals. The chemical profile of each bee’s foot-glue is as unique as a fingerprint.

Previous studies have shown that bees glean important information from one another’s goo, skipping flowers that other bees have already visited. This raised an interesting question: If a bee can "read" another bee’s scent mark, can it also identify that bee?

To find out, researchers planted small clusters of fake flowers in the laboratory and topped some of them up them with sucrose nectar. They then gave bumblebees (Bombus terrestris) free rein to tromp around the blossoms, marking them up and taking in the marks of other bees that had come before.

The bees proved careful and canny readers. Not only did they use other bees’ scent marks to decide which flowers to probe, but they also considered the source of the scent when making that decision. An individual bee could easily differentiate between the smell of its own feet (trustworthy), those of its family members (very trustworthy), and those of strangers (not a reliable source of floral information).

Lead author Richard Pearce is a biologist at the University of Bristol. "Bumblebees are flexible learners and, as we have discovered, can detect whether or not it is they or a different bumblebee that has visited a flower recently. These impressive abilities allows them to be cleverer in their search for food, which will help them to be more successful," he said in a statement.

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