social animals smarter

Social Animals Smarter, Have More ‘Social Intelligence’

Social animals are smarter — or at least they have greater social intelligence. And apparently they’re more than ready to put their street smarts to work in getting away with petty larceny.

That’s the conclusion of a study performed on six species of lemurs living at the Duke Lemur Center that was published on Thursday in the open access science journal PLOS One.

A statement from Duke University in North Carolina summed it up this way:

Lemurs from species that hang out in big tribes are more likely to steal food behind your back instead of in front of your face.”

Lemurs are a large group of primitive primates endemic to Madagascar, where I photographed the ringtailed lemurs and Verreaux’s sifakas that you can see in my pictures above. While humans are not direct descendants of these prosimians, scientists feel that they can learn a lot about primate behavior by studying them.

The new social animal study tested the social smarts of 60 individual lemurs to see if they were more likely to steal food if they weren’t being watched.

The results were about what you’d expect.

In one test, people sat either facing or looking away from the food dish. The more social species of lemurs, like the ringtails, were more conscious of watching eyes — and thus were more likely to steal from people who weren’t looking.

The lemur species that didn’t form large social groups, such as the mongoose lemurs, were clueless clods who tried to grab the food whether somebody was looking or not.


In a second study, the researchers tried putting a blindfold on some of the human observers. All of those humans sat looking in the direction of the food, but some of the blindfolds were over their mouths instead of their eyes.

Here, the lemur’s social intelligence or lack thereof completely failed them. “Few of the lemurs apparently understood the significance of a blindfold,” said the Duke statement.

Their street smarts may not help them with basic cognition. But it does make a certain amount of sense that social animals have more social smarts.

[wild lemurs in Madagascar photos by Elaine Radford]