Black Howler Monkeys, Like Humans, Develop Mental Maps for Efficient Navigation


Since people began committing their worldviews on flat slabs of rock and papyrus, we have had a sense that our mental maps are structured similarly. Our mental maps, on the other hand, are nothing like paper maps. Humans rely on maps that are route-based. Internal maps, which are also used by animals, are made up of well-trodden routes connecting often visited areas, with little awareness of their relationship to one another.

Nonetheless, humans are capable of supplementing these primitive representations with knowledge of the distances we cover and the direction in which we go in order to take occasional shortcuts. However, many organisms travel much more complex habitats and require fast navigation, making it advantageous to be able to combine knowledge of many paths to use shortcuts.

Can other species navigate in the same way as humans do? Because black howler monkeys (Alouatta pigra) forage in the forests of Mexico, Belize, and Guatemala, Miguel de Guinea (Oxford Brookes University, UK), Sarie Van Belle (University of Texas at Austin, USA), and colleagues from Mexico and the UK wondered whether the primates can also refine their route-based mental maps.

The team publishes its study in the Journal of Experimental Biology that black howler monkeys change their mental maps similarly to humans, making them the first animal capable of navigation.

Due to the impossibility of GPS-tagging the endangered monkeys, de Guinea and his colleagues were forced to visit the jungles that cover the Mayan ruins in Palenque National Park, Mexico, and track the roaming creatures.

“We would arrive at the study area where our focal group was expected to be found before sunrise,” de Guinea explains, noting that the troops of black howler monkeys, ranging in size from four to eleven individuals, were rather easy to locate due to their morning call. De Guinea, Van Belle, field assistant Elsa Barrios, and an international team of volunteers then pursued the monkeys at ground level throughout their 50-hectare domain. “At times, the monkeys chose to travel to the top of the area’s tallest temple, forcing us to climb at a breakneck pace in the intense heat to reach them,” de Guinea explains. At other times, the primates dragged the investigators across cliffs. At one point, the monkeys came across a 5-meter gap on one of their usual paths; “a tree had fallen overnight,” Van Belle recounts.

“They came to a halt for half an hour and then traveled along the edge to reconnect with the second half of their travel path… as if they recognized this as a new obstacle and needed to weigh their options,” she laughs. Latest News from Infosurhoy.


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