It was previously thought that imitation is a capacity that is unique to humans and, perhaps, the great apes. In the current issue of PLoS Biology, Ferrari et al report that the macaque (an Old World monkey species) can imitate the facial movements of humans:
In the third day of life, infant macaques imitate lip smacking and tongue protrusion…These imitative responses…are apparently confined to a narrow temporal window….Neonatal imitation may serve to tune infants’ affiliative responses to the social world. Our findings provide a quantitative description of neonatal imitation in a nonhuman primate species and suggest that these imitative capacities, contrary to what was previously thought, are not unique to the ape and human lineage. We suggest that their evolutionary origins may be traced to affiliative gestures with communicative functions.
The temporal window mentioned in the abstract apparently lasts only a few days, so that by the time the monkeys are 7 days old, they have lost the imitative capacity. Significantly, the window is longer in humans and apes, although in these species the onset of the window is later. The authors also suggest that mirror neurons are responsible for the monkeys’ imitative behaviour.
This clip shows a 3-day-old macaque imitating a researcher:
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