A Moment of Science

Monkey Mother Love

Did you know that rhesus macaque monkey moms have demonstrated mothering behavior similar to humans?

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Photo: J.E.S.

Scientists are learning humans aren't the only ones who interact with their offspring.

Picture a mother cradling her newborn infant.  She looks intently into the baby’s eyes, making kissing noises.

It’s a typical scene, right?

Except that the mother and baby aren’t human.  They’re rhesus macaque monkeys.

Rhesus Macaque Monkeys

Until recently, scientists assumed that humans and chimps are the only animals that interact so intimately with their offspring.  And in more than fifty years of studying macaque monkeys in captivity, nobody had noticed similar behavior.

Gentle Moms

That may be because macaque babies spend most of their time asleep. Scientists at the National Institutes of Health, though, managed to catch macaque mothers and babies together.  And they found that, just like people and chimps, macaques can be very tender.

The researchers observed macaque moms gently bouncing their young, holding their heads and trying to attract their gaze. And when the monkey moms made lip smacks, their babies often responded in kind.

OK. But besides being adorable, so what?

Mother-Baby Bonding

Well, for one thing, it suggests that this sort of mother‑baby bonding is nothing new. In fact, it appears to go back tens of millions of years. Knowing this will help scientists better understand the origins of interpersonal communication.

And knowing more about the origins may lead to greater understanding of the role that communication plays in infant development.

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