10 Famous Monkeys* in Science.

*Technically, chimp and gorillas, too, but "monkeys" sounds funnier.

It's a common theory that, given enough time (and food ... and ink ribbon), a million monkeys on a million typewriters will eventually bang out the works of Shakespeare. But that only goes for average monkeys. Round up a few higher-class primates armed with an education and some travel experience, and we wouldn't be surprised if you got a masterpiece on par with Harry Potter or The Firm. In fact, the following 10 hot-shot simians might even know enough to assemble a science textbook; in which case, they'd definitely need to leave room for a chapter about themselves.

1. Baker & Able

Never send a man to do a female monkey's job. That was the logic of the U.s. Army's Medical Research and Development Department in 1959 when they wanted to gauge the body's physical response to space travel. Instead of relying on fit, able-bodied Americans, researchers there turned to two highly patriotic gals named Baker (a squirrel monkey) and Able (a rhesus monkey). On May 28, the monkeys steeled their nerves, entered the nose cone of a Jupiter AM-18 missile, and embarked on a suborbital mission into space. It would take two more years before a human male, cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, had the guts to attempt the same thing.

During their 15-minute flight, the simian sidekicks reached speeds of 10,000 mph and soared to an altitude of 300 miles. For nine minutes, they were weightless. Even more impressive, they lived to screech about the experience - making them the first two living beings to survive a space flight. Sadly, life wasn't all bananas and back-scratches after the girls returned home. By the time Baker and Able made the cover of Life magazine on June 15, Able was dead. Although her body could withstand forces 38 times the normal force of gravity, she couldn't cope with the anesthesia necessary to remove a tiny electrode implanted in her body for the trip. She died four days after her return to Earth. Baker, however, spent the rest of her life basking in the glow of celebrity from her specially designed enclosure at the Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Ala. She died in 1984 at the ripe old age of 27.

2. David Greybeard

Once upon a time, not so long ago, members of the scientific community thought they had the whole evolution thing figured out. Simply put, humans were smarter than primates because humans made tools. But, apparently a few chimpanzees at the Gombe Stream Research Center in Tanzania didn't get the memo.

David Greybeard and Jane Goodall.

In 1960, then-fledling primatologist Jane Goodall was studying Gombe's wild chimps when she came across an adult male "fishing" for termites by dipping a twig into a hole and feasting on the bugs that clung to the stick. She named him David Greybeard and began to track him, eventually finding that he (and other males) used such tools regularly. In addition, the chimps would customize their termite twigs by stripping off the leaves and bark layer to help fit the sticks into specific feeding holes. This was the first documented case of a non-human manufacturing a tool, and it turned the scientific community upside down. As eminent anthropologist Louis Leakey put it, "Now we must redefine tool, redefine man, or accept chimpanzees as humans."

3. Oliver

If David Greybeard blurred the line between humans and chimpanzees by fishing for termites, you can imagine all the evolutionary issues raised when a chimp named Oliver started mixing his own Highballs.

Oliver was a bald-headed, Spock-eared chimpanzee that, besides playing bartender, also walked on two legs, used a toilet, and loved watching TV. For most of his life, Oliver's various trainers paraded him around at carnivals and on television shows as a freak. But things changed for Oliver in 1975. A Manhattan lawyer who caught his act decided the chimp was so human-like that he just might be the elusive "missing link" between man and beast and put Oliver through a battery of scientific tests to prove it. Sure enough, an exam conducted in Japan indicated that oliver had 47 chromosomes - more than a human's 46, and less than a chimp's 48. The results were more than enough to get the press and the public excited. When subsequent exams proved inconclusive, though, the American media lost interest. But in 1996, researchers test Oliver again. This time, they definitively concluded that he had 48 chromosomes, making him all chimp. He wasn't the missing link after all, but scientists still concede that he probably was the Albert Einstein of chimpanzees.

4. Hellion

You've probably wanted a "helper monkey" ever since you saw Mojo drinking beer on the couch with Homer Simpson. Unfortunately, it's pretty hard to get one in real-life. But bear in mind, the fantasy wouldn't exist at all if it weren't for hellion, the first monkey trained to lend humans a helping hand (and tail).

Hellion with owner Robert Foster

In 1977, educational psychologist Mary Joan Willard started training capuchins - small, dexterous tree monkeys commonly seen with people such as organ grinders and David Schwimmer - to assist disabled humans. Just two years later, Willard placed her first trainee, Hellion, with a quadriplegic named Robert Foster, and it proved a startling success. In fact, the pair is still together today. using a mouth-operated laser, Foster is able to point out what he wants Hellion to do. The monkey's tasks range from combing Foster's hair to locking the doors to operating the stereo. Hellion is even able to clean the house using a tiny vacuum.

Today, Hellion is a role model for other simian aides. At the 6,000-square-foot Helping Hands training center in Boston, young capuchins attended classes five to six times a week for a full year before receiving their first assignments. To date, the institute has placed more than 93 monkeys with disabled clients.

5. "Nim" Chimpsky

After David Greybeard proved that chimps could make tools, scientists scrambled to establish another dividing line between man and primate. This time, they decreed it to be the use of language. One avid proponent of the new theory was Noam Chomsky, renowned linguist at MIT. Chomsky derided trainers for attempting to teach sign language to primates and insisted that only the human mind is capable of grasping the complexities of language syntax.

Nim Chimpsky.

Naturally, zoologist around the world became eager to prove him wrong. Enter Neam Chimpsky ("Nim" for short), the chimpanzee designed to be a stiff middle finger to the doubtful Chomsky. In the mid 1970s, trainers did everything they could to teach American Sign Language to Nim, but the chimp only mastered 125 signs. Apparently, his lingual development was sabotaged by his own one-track mind. his most advanced utterance was, "Give orange me give eat orange me eat orange give me eat orange give me you."

Nim might have failed to grasp the concepts of syntax and sentence structure, but he wasn't a total disappointment. Turns out, Nim was a decent abstract artist. Working mostly with a mix of magic markers and crayons, he produced works of art that critics describe as childlike and playful. He would often work for weeks in one color, then switch to another, allowing his drawings to highlight the transition between phases. Nim died in 2000. Today, his portfolio of roughly 200 drawings is valued at $25,000.

6. Koko

Noam Chomsky didn't get long to bask in the glory of Nim Chimpsky's failures. In 1972, Stanford graduate student Francine Patterson began teaching American Sign Language to a female lowland gorilla named Koko. In only a few weeks, she was making the correct signs for food and drink.

Known as the world's first "speaking" gorilla, Koko currently boasts a vocabulary of more than 1,000 signs and understand roughly 2,000 spoken words. She still struggles with the occasional word, though. Unfortunately, one of them happens to be "people," which she tends to substitute with "nipple," thus explaining how she became the defendant in  a sexual harassment case against some caretakers a few months back (seriously).

When not signing or pushing the envelope of political incorrectness, Koko enjoys playing on her computer. In 1998, she even logged onto America Online and fielded questions from the public through  an interpreter. During that chat, fans were able to learn what pet Koko would like to have ("dog"), the first-hand gossip on what she thought about the male gorilla brought in to be her mate ("frown bad bad bad"), and what a 310-pound gorilla really wants ("candy, give me"). But such mindless banter clearly wasn't enough to hold the attention of a genius gorilla. Koko soon grew bored with the chat (calling it "obnoxious") and wandered off to play with her dolls.

7. Kanzi

So you think you're special because you taught you simian sign language? Before you go and register the little guy in any big talent shows, be prepared to put your monkey where your mouth is.

In the 1980s, researchers at Georgia State University began studying the bonobo chimpanzees' ability to understand and mimic human language. They started out with a bonobo trainee named Matata, but even after several years, they weren't able to make much headway with her. Matata's adopted baby son Kanzi, however, was a different story. Turns out, the young chimp picked up quite bit (more than his mommy, certainly) by accompanying Matata to "school" every day. In 2002, researchers began noticing that Kanzi was able to express his needs using four distinct sounds that corresponded to specific objects or commands (banana, juice, grapes, and yes). While this particular brand of beat poetry isn't necessarily stimulating, the very suggestion that primates employ an audible "language" is a direct affront to the linguistic experts who claim they don't have the marbles to do so.

Sue Savage-Rumbaugh and Kanzi.

Besides accomplishing the academic kiss-off "Nim" Chimpsky could only dream about, Kanzi has established himself a true primate prodigy. In addition to "bonobo," he understands between 2,000 and 3,000 spoken words in English. He even communicates with his tutor, psychologist Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, by punching abstract symbols on a special keyboard. While most Americans still can't bring themselves to learn a second language, Kanzi is now dabbling in three.

8. Indah and Azy

While chimpanzees and gorillas are puttering about in English classes, orangutan siblings Azy and Indah are working on something more akin to studying for the LSAT. At the Smithsonian Institution's National Zoo exhibit, the "Think Tank," primates are taught to practice more abstract ways of thinking, often working with logic puzzles and communicating via symbols.

Indah, for instance, learned to combine symbols representing verbs and nouns to create simple commands, such as "open bag." She was also a (relative) math whiz, having mastered the numbers one, two , and three. Before her death in 2004, her trainers were well on their way to teaching her how to assign numerical values to objects - the first step in monetary exchange. (She was so close to being able to go shoe shopping!)

While less left-brained than his sister, Azy is no simian slacker. He's mastered counterintuitive thinking, something chimpanzees (supposedly the smarter species) can't do. For example, trainers can present Azy with two bowls of grapes; and although his first inclination is to grab the one with more grub, he's now learned that picking the bowl with fewer grapes will get him a bigger reward.

9. Tetra2

Tetra2 can't speak, she can't do math, she doesn't known sign language, and (trust us on this one) you won't get her within 20 feet of a space shuttle. But Tetra2 can claim something the other monkeys on this list can't: She's a clone.

In 1999, scientists at the Oregon Regional Primate Research Center split eight-cell rhesus embryos into four identical two-cell clones and implanted 13 of them into surrogate mothers. Four of the monkeys got pregnant, but only one of the babies, Tetra2, survived. For the first time, the seemingly impossible dream of every government on Earth (to own an army of genetically identical monkeys, of course) was within reach. As an added bonus, using cloned monkeys as identical subjects for medical experiments removes the genetic variables, meaning more accurate results. The scientific ramifications are potentially enormous ... but we still prefer to focus on the monkey army.

10. Brachiator III

Speaking of monkey armies, robotics wizard Dr. Toshio Fukuda and his crack team of researchers at Nagoya University in Japan have clearly forgotten the key theme of science-fiction: the annihilation of human life at the hands of a vengeful machine. Their invention, an intelligent robotic monkey with the super tough nickname Brachiator III has trouble written all over it.

The faux ape represents two huge steps toward a fully functioning humanoid. Its unique frame, modeled from a gibbon ape's skeleton, houses 14 motors that allow it to move every joint, making it capable of life-like movement. Dr. Fukuda also sees Brachiator III as a monumental advancement in artificial intelligence. Using a complex vision system an external computer brain, the metal monkey can actually make decisions about what movements to make and where to make them. It can even learn from its mistakes. If Brachiator III misses a bar while swinging round the jungle gym, its brain makes adjustments for the next attempt.

But don't worry about hordes of invading pseudo-simians just yet. For now, a cumbersome external battery limits Brachiator's environment to its jungle gym. It'll have to wait until a smaller, more lightweight power source has been developed before it can learn to walk ... and, of course, destroy.


The article above was written by Craig Tenbroeck for the May-June 2005 issue of mental_floss magazine - it is featured on Neatorama in partnership with mental_floss.

Be sure to check out mental_floss' fantastic website and blog:

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Here are some more:

Cheeta – oldest non-human primate, also stared in some Tarzan movies.
Washoe – hand-signing Chimpanzee (i think it was the first Chimpanzee to sign)?
And there were two Tetras, both clones, I think.
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