By: Angela Qian
I think we can all agree that humans are pretty smart. Just think of all the amazing things our species has created and accomplished! You don’t see other animals using Bluetooth devices, or going to the moon! Yet, every now and again, something amazing and strangely human-like happens in nature. Something that makes you question if we’re really as special as we would like to believe.
It all began with a small team of three Japanese scientists in 1948 who started a long-term research project on the macaques living on Koshima Island. The scientists would lure the monkeys onto the sandy beaches with enticing sweet potatoes and then observe their behaviour. Nothing particularly exciting happened for the first few years of the study; however, in 1953, the three scientists observed something amazing.
One day, the scientists noticed one of the monkeys dipping their sweet potato in water. Imo, a one-and-a-half-year-old macaque apparently did not enjoy the texture of sand on her potato. As a result, she took it upon herself to wash her potato! Although this may seem like the machinations of one smart monkey, the behaviour quickly spread amongst the community of macaques.
Imo’s playmates picked it up first, followed by her siblings, and finally Imo’s mother. Overall, the technique of washing potatoes spread from the young to the old. This trend was reversed in the next generation of macaques. There, mothers taught their children how to wash their potatoes. Interestingly, this new behaviour was not learned by older male macaques. This is likely due to the fact that adult male macaques tend to live on their own and rarely interact with the group. Thus, they never got the chance to learn the technique from others.
Imo was not done innovating just yet, however. Three-and-a-half years later, the scientists observed Imo using water to separate handfuls of wheat grains mixed with sand, so she could more easily eat the wheat. This technique was later named the wheat placing mining behaviour since it is similar to how miners would separate gold from soil during the gold rush.
Sadly, Imo is dead, but her innovations are still observable within the population of macaques on Koshima Island to this day. The story of Imo highlights an example of an animal exhibiting human-like behaviour in the wild. The development and spread of techniques such as washing sweet potatoes shows an aspect of culture within a nonhuman species. Had she gotten the chance, who knows how many more innovations Imo would have made