Wild Things: Life as We Know It | Science | Smithsonian

Wild Things: Life as We Know It

Monkey talk, reptilian altruism, anemone stings, aquatic crabs, and Thyrohyrax.

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Monkey Talk
Scientists from the University of St. Andrews have gathered the first evidence that monkeys can string words together. Tree-dwelling putty-nosed monkeys in Nigeria combine "pyow," warning of a possible threat below, and "hack," about a threat above, to express a new, more urgent message: flee now! Is this language? Sort of, if the communication is learned rather than innate, researchers say. About that, they're not yet sure.

Whom Can You Trust?
How does an animal inclined toward altruism, which often results in a loss of mating opportunities, pass that trait along? A new study shows how one species solves the problem—by recognizing the selfless trait in others and coming to the defense of only those that share it. The work, led by researchers at the University of California at Santa Cruz, investigated male side-blotched lizards. Some blue-throated members of the species defend other, unrelated blues against orange- or yellow-throated rivals. But they somehow know not to team up with selfish blue-throated males. As a result, self-sacrifice helps those that can pass along altruistic genes.

Ouch!
Researchers in Germany have documented that the stingers covering sea anemone tentacles accelerate from zero to 80 miles per hour in 700 nanoseconds, a million times faster than a race car. That's one of the fastest cellular processes in nature.

Take a Deep Breath
After aquatic crabs molt, they fill up with water to stabilize their new, flimsy, oversized shells. But how do land-dwellers such as the blackback crab fill out a new shell? University of North Carolina scientists say they suck in air—an adaptation that may have allowed them to move ashore.

Observed
Name: Thyrohyrax, ancient predecessor of hyraxes, rabbit-size mammals found from the Middle East to southern Africa.
Sexual Identity: Reassigned. It was believed that the species' long, banana-curved lower jaws belonged to females. But after examining the fossilized dental record, Duke Lemur Center researchers concluded that the jaws belonged to males, which had bigger lower incisors.
Date-Night Implications: The male's weird jawbone includes a hollow chamber on each side. Did males somehow use the chamber to produce sound, possibly during courtship? If so, Thyrohyrax would be the only known mammal thus equipped.
Overall Success: Not great, apparently. Thyrohyrax died out probably about 30 million years ago; its descendants have no such jaw or chamber.

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