Can animals remember the location of the nearest, most abundant fruit tree, the way people recall a neighborhood restaurant with large portion sizes? The National Geographic Society recently awarded Dr. Elena Cunningham, an Adjunct Assistant Professor of Basic Science and Craniofacial Biology, a one-year grant to address this question by assessing whether the fruit-eating Varecia lemur of Madagascar, a distant relative of the monkey, can remember the location of fruit trees in its rainforest habitat, as well as the quantity of fruit available on them.
Dr. Cunningham will travel to Ranomafana National Park in Madagascar to compare her findings with those from earlier research she conducted on groups of fruit-eating Saki monkeys living in the Venezuelan rainforest, who routinely travel a considerable distance to find a site with enough fruit for everyone. The extra distance traveled was a small price to pay, Dr. Cunningham recalls, as it allowed the monkeys to maintain group harmony and remain unified in the search for food that often leads monkeys to clash with members of their own group.
Dr. Cunningham speculates that lemurs, with their smaller, more primitive brains, cannot integrate information on food location and quantity, and that they often forage in pairs, because they lack the ability to find trees with enough fruit to feed a large group. This would suggest that the capacity to integrate quantity and location information is specific to monkeys, humans, and other advanced primates, who have used this ability to form large, cohesive groups, says Dr. Cunningham.