Another Day in the Monkeys Brain

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Wonder no longer. Scientists have discovered that it all depends on the age of the unfortunate prey. Researchers recently filmed chimpanzees Pan troglodytes in Tanzania's Gombe National Park excitedly munching on monkeys, hoping to learn more about the chimps' carnivorous eating habits.

Whenever older monkeys were on the menu, chimps tended to initially harvest the organs — particularly the liver, which is rich in fat, the scientists reported in a new study. But if a chimp was lucky enough to catch a youngster, they were almost certain to go straight for the tender, savory and nutrient-packed brain, biting right through the fragile skulls and devouring the juvenile monkeys headfirst.

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Meat provides chimpanzees with important nutrients that they can't get from plants — such as vitamins A and B12, zinc, copper and iron — and their enthusiasm for meaty meals demonstrates how important flesh and fat are for their diet, according to the study. Brains, especially mammal brains, are especially high in fat.

They also contain certain fatty acids that are absent from plants and are known, at least in humans, to be important for brain function and for lessening the damage from some diseases, the study authors reported.

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Prior research suggested that chimps found monkey brains to be especially desirable; the scientists cited a chimpanzee study from that noted, "The brain is the only organ for which marked preference is regularly shown, and the eating of brain tissue is always a slow, meticulous procedure with a definite undertone of enjoyment.

For the new study, the team recorded 29 incidents of monkey-eating by eight chimpanzees, and found that if the monkey was a juvenile, the chimps first went for the head 91 percent of the time. For adult monkeys, the chimps also were interested in the brains, but they cracked the skulls first only 44 percent of the time. Whenever a chimp caught a young monkey, they all typically used a similar method to kill and eat them, biting down on the head and pulling hard, "apparently trying to remove the body from the skull," according to the study. The research revealed that brain regions involved in higher cognitive and executive processes—such as language and reasoning—grow about twice as much as regions associated with basic senses such vision and hearing, said study leader Jason Hill, a neurobiologist at Washington University in St.

Louis, Missouri.

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The results suggest that the expansion patterns in infant brains are "remarkably similar" to how human brains have changed since humans and macaques diverged from a common ancestor about 25 million years ago. Hill and colleagues suspect that development of the human brains' higher cognitive and executive regions may be delayed to allow them to be shaped by early life experiences.

Read "Beyond the Brain" in National Geographic magazine. The delay could help keep a fetus's brain from growing too big to fit through his or her mother's pelvis. The researchers hope that the new brain discovery can help uncover where and how the development of some premature babies goes awry.

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Findings appear online this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Photograph by Lynn Johnson, National Geographic. Read Caption.