Baboons at Port Lympne Wild Animal Park near Hythe in Kent, as baboons have shown they can master one of the basic elements of literacy
It may not be quite the same as producing the complete works of Shakespeare, but baboons have shown they can master one of the basic elements of literacy.
In tests, the monkeys learned to distinguish between genuine English words and ‘nonsense’ sequences of letters.
Recognising words in this way was previously assumed to require the kind of language skills only humans possess.
Experts now believe when people read written words they draw on an ancient ability that predates human evolution.
The French scientists studied a group of six baboons housed in an enclosure that contained several booths holding computers with touch-sensitive screens.
The animals, which had free access to the booths, were presented with sequences of four letters, and by tapping one of two shapes on the screen, could signify if they were seeing a word or a non-word.
A correct response earned a food reward.
A baboon reaching out to press a touch-sensitive screen in Marseille. The animals could freely enter the booths and complete multiple rounds of the computer-based exercise
They received a food treat after a correct response. The monkeys in this study learned how to tell the difference between printed sequences of letters that made up actual English words and other, nonsense sequences
Over a month and a half, the baboons learned to discriminate dozens of words from more than 7,000 non-words with almost 75% accuracy.
This ability to identify specific combinations of letters is called ‘orthographic processing’ and is a key component of reading.
Writing in the journal Science, the researchers led by Dr Jonathan Grainger, from Aix-Marseille University, concluded: ‘Our study may... help explain the success of the human cultural choice of visually representing words using combinations of aligned, spatially compact, ordered sequences of symbols.
‘The primate brain might therefore be better prepared than previously thought to process printed words, hence facilitating the initial steps toward mastering one of the most complex of human skills: reading.’
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