Wild Tracks

On behalf of the world's wild species

Lemur Gazes

When I was about 10 years old, I distinctly remember the hilarity caused by my friend and I standing on a busy street and looking up. It took very little time before all the people passing us were also looking up, at which point we dissolved into giggles at the ‘trick’ we had played on all the gullible adults.

Psychologists at the University of St Andrews in Scotland have been studying the human tendency to follow the gaze of other people. According to researchers, humans find it impossible not to look up when they see someone else doing it, even it they know it’s a trick. While I cannot imagine what conceivable use this study may have to humanity, they have found a link to similar behaviour in primates.

Following the gaze of another primate was apparently a practical, food-finding skill, dating back to the earliest primates. Previous studies of apes and monkey found they also follow the gaze of other animals, but failed to use the ability to locate food.

Black & white ruffed lemur taking a look

Black & white ruffed lemur taking a look

Lemurs, however, are different. Researchers found that when a lemur followed a look, they used the action to increase their chance of finding food.

Lemurs are small members of the primate family found only on the island of Madagascar. They diverged from the common ancestor of humans and apes so long ago they are only distantly related to humans.

Researchers explained that the discovery suggested the gaze ability had evolved earlier than first thought. Because they found this ability, once thought unique to humans, in lemurs, they can now push back the date of its original evolution far beyond the last common ancestor humans share with apes, or even with monkeys, back to the time of the first primates.

Here we thought we were so clever getting people to look up, when it turns out the idea has been around for a few million years.

Of course, another of our favorites was to wait until there was a crowd of pedestrians waiting at a red light. Then we would take one step off the curb, and watch as the crowd automatically started to cross, while we stepped back. More hilarity ensued. Now, however, I have this mental image of a group of lemurs sitting around grooming each other, when one of them suddenly starts walking…

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