Macaque Monkeys Could Use Money

Macaque monkeys are smart, but are they smart enough to learn the value of money just by watching humans? A team of Italian researchers has published evidence in open access journal PLOS One which suggested that the clever primates can indeed learn how to exchange tokens for food. No dummies, the monkeys even learned to recognize which tokens are valuable and which tokens are worthless.

And they were able to do it by observing the results of humans exchanging tokens for food. In other words, “monkey see, monkey do” seemed to work just fine.

However, don’t give the macaque monkey tooooo much credit. The researchers explained that they used tokens like pens and gum chewing boxes instead of real money because they wanted to avoid offering them anything that might be dangerous to swallow.

Hey, don’t laugh. A Jack Russell terrior made embarrassing headlines for its owner around the world earlier in the month when the dog swallowed 111 pennies, resulting in emergency surgery lasting two hours to remove them from his system.

Because of their alleged intelligence, Japanese macaque monkeys became the subject of a wildly popular New Age myth which reached its heyday in the 1980s. The so-called “hundredth monkey effect” was a pop science retelling of research on the wild primates conducted in the 1950s.

Some of the monkeys reportedly learned how to wash their food before they ate it, and, then, after some critical mass of monkeys learned the behavior, the knowledge somehow leapfrogged to another island with a different population of monkeys.

Who doesn’t love the idea of learning by osmosis once enough people — or at least enough monkeys — already know something? Unfortunately, the story may be pretty much a complete fabrication that got bigger and better along the way.

The study released today makes a far more modest claim. Yes, macaque monkeys can learn the concept of money if they observe their human models long enough. And if they don’t eat the money first.

[crab-eating macaque monkey photo by Lepidlizard via Wikipedia Commons]