Though they are credited with being intelligent, crafty, and adaptable, baboons have frequently found themselves in direct conflict with human beings. By some, they are considered little more than vermin.
But now, researchers in France have concluded that baboons have the ability to master one of the basic elements of reading.
Even though the baboons have no linguistic skills, the monkeys in this study were able to learn how to tell the difference between sequences of letters making actual English words, and other nonsense sequences of letters.
The baboons live in a large enclosure, and they can enter testing booths whenever they want.
A microchip implanted in their arms allows the computer to identify the baboon, and launch an appropriate experiment.
Here, a touch screen presents the letters, and a food dispenser delivers a reward after a correct response. That is the noise you can hear.
This baboon is performing the experiment: touching the screen to begin a test. The animal touches the plus sign if the letters are a non-word, and the oval shape, if the letters make up a word. This baboon is making correct answers and gets a reward.
Over a period of a month- and a half, the researchers say the baboons learned to tell dozens of words apart from more than 7,000 non-words with nearly 75 percent accuracy.
The researchers in Marseille, France say their findings challenge a long-held notion that the ability to recognize words in this way is fundamentally related to language. They say it now appears that when humans read, we are partly drawing on an ancient ability, predating the evolution of our own species.
The findings are published in the April 13, 2012 edition of Science Magazine.