In lemur-land, nerds are popular

With social networks on my mind this week because of recent congressional hearings in the US, I was interested to learn that, in lemurs at least, smarts are linked to popularity.

So there may yet be hope for nerds everywhere.

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Image by Mathias Appel

It’s been pretty well established that well-connected animals learn well. Fish, songbirds and sea lions (amongst other species) find more food if they have lots of friends.

This makes a lot of sense – the more connections you have, the more opportunities you’ll have to hear about the best spots for food and the best tools to use to acquire it. Obviously fish aren’t conveying complex information or sharing American Chopper memes, but there is a social component to learning in a lot of animal species.

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But researchers from Princeton recently discovered that this relationship between network centrality (how well-connected you are) and ability to find new food and tools (how smart you are) works in both directions in ring-tailed lemurs. Not only do well-connected lemurs tend to be smarter, but when they show their smarts they become better-connected. In lemur terms, that means they get groomed more and spend more time closer to their friends.

Their methods were simple, but effective. They put a grape in a plexiglass box and attached a string to the grape. They put the boxes in the midst of two populations of lemurs and watched to see which lemurs solved the puzzle. Then they noted down how many times the puzzle-solvers were approached or groomed by other lemurs in their group. And they found that puzzle-solvers became more popular!

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Image by Ipek Kulahci

The single grape is important, because it eliminates the possibility that the other members of the group paid more attention to the puzzle-solvers because they hoped to get an immediate food reward. The grape was gone as soon as it was retrieved from the box. So the lemurs seem to value puzzle-solving ability for potential future benefits rather than immediate rewards.

But why would lemurs want to be popular? The increase in grooming and interaction might have some obvious hygiene and food sharing benefits, but it might also have less-obvious ones like microbiome diversity. In a study of wild sifakas (cousins of lemurs), individuals closer to the centre of social networks had more diverse gut bacteria. And that, in turn, might have lots of implications – from digestion and metabolism to mental health and infection immunity.

So, in lemurs at least, showing your smarts makes you popular, healthy and strong.

If only high school was like lemur-land…

 

The paper is open-access and you can read it here: http://www.cell.com/current-biology/fulltext/S0960-9822(18)30301-4

Or the press release is here: https://www.princeton.edu/news/2018/04/05/lessons-lemurs-make-friends-show-your-smarts

 

 

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