Little Monkeys

How human are our babies? Recent research indicates infants up to the age of 6 months are aided by the calls of a lemur when tasked to group objects into categories. The recordings, however do not help children over 6 months (Ferry, Hespos & Waxman 2013).

In a paper published in Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA scientists used the previous understanding that recordings of human speech can help infants to group objects into categories to test whether the effect was true with the call of the Eulemur macaco flavifrons lemur. They found that, when asked to discriminate between images of dinosaurs and fish, children aged between 3 and 4 months performed better with the addition of the lemur call while viewing the images. Infants over the age of 6 months however were not helped by the recordings of the primate indicating that by this age they have specialised to human speech.

Spot the difference...

Spot the difference…

Yes I’ll admit it, the first sentence of this post is a tad radical. Your children aren’t going to turn into wild animals if you don’t talk to them very much. As far as I know Mowgli didn’t turn into an actual wolf and I think that would definitely throw up a fair few questions for Watson, Crick and their fellow geneticists out there.

There is, however more to this than there would seem. A similar study in 2011 showed that infants aged 4-6 months were able to discriminate the faces of novel over familiar sheep (as well as primates up to 9 months) where those aged 9-11 months had no preference (Simpson et al. 2011).

All this evidence gives quite a nice picture of a baby as more of a blank canvass, waiting to be turned into a human. I suppose much in the way that our schoolchildren (or dare I say it university students) haven’t specialised into a career.

As I have said I wouldn’t get too carried away, someone quite rightly pointed out to me that the reason a child can tell the difference between 6 different guinea pigs is more likely down to the fact that, where adults would realise they are all just guinea pigs, the infant is yet to make that connection and simply views each animal as a new entity. None of this implying that your baby is in any way part guinea pig.

Although it may not be re-writing the laws of science this research most certainly gives us a little more insight into the fascinating process of neural development, something we don’t know a huge lot about. It also gives us plenty of room for more research, I wonder for instance how early infants are able to tell the difference between a primate’s call and a recording of a human language completely different to their own?

All I know for certain is that, although Mowgli may not have been part wolf, I’ll bet he could damn well tell them apart.



FERRY, A.L., S.J. HESPOS and S.R. WAXMAN 2013. Nonhuman primate vocalizations support categorization in very young human infants. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America [online],p.1221166110–. Available from: [Accessed September 17, 2013].

SIMPSON, E.A. et al. 2011. Infants Experience Perceptual Narrowing for Nonprimate Faces. Infancy [online]. 16(3),pp.318–328. Available from: [Accessed September 16, 2013].

Written by Mike Daniels

Mike Daniels

I’m currently studying for a PhD in neuroinflammation at the the University of Manchester, UK. My work is based mainly on the role of a huge protein complex called the inflammasome in diseases such as Alzheimer’s, stroke and haemorrhagic fever.
When I’m not in the lab I’m usually found up a mountain or out in the countryside somewhere and am always on the lookout for any new science outreach ideas!

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