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Hotshot monkeys* in science

  • Story Highlights
  • Two monkeys, Able and Baker, preceded man into space
  • Hellion, the helper monkey, cleans with tiny vacuum cleaner
  • Gorilla named Koko signs 1,000 words and understands 2,000
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By Craig Tenbroeck
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Mental Floss

(Mental Floss) -- 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.

Ham, the first-ever chimpanzee to ride into space, and his animal trainer at Cape Canaveral, Florida in 1961 during Project Mercury.

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.

Baker and Able -- First ladies in space

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.

David Greybeard -- Sticking it to The Man

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.

In 1960, then-fledgling 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 layers 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."

Oliver -- One chromosome shy of a missing link

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 tested 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.

Hellion -- Giving seeing-eye dogs a bad name

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).

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 attend 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.

"Nim" Chimpsky -- Chimp versus chump

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.

Naturally, zoologists 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 the phases.

Nim died in 2000. Today, his portfolio of roughly 200 drawings is valued at $25,000.

Koko -- Chomsky's final take-down

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 understands 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 the 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. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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*Technically, chimps and gorillas, too, but "monkeys" sounds funnier

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