Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Sticking with monkeys...

Without wishing to turn this into a monkey blog, but having a soft spot for primates, a transitory (twice a day) interest in dental hygiene and a passing curiosity in what was happening in the above video, my research revealed information of modest enough value to post here. 

According to a research paper published earlier this month, Long Tailed Macaque monkeys have been observed by Japanese scientists from Kyoto University teaching their young to clean between their teeth, by flossing. The monkeys that inhabit a Buddhist shrine in Lopburi, 150 km north of Bangkok, are known to pluck hair from the heads of visitors to use as floss. Worshipers consider the monkeys to be divine servants, the researchers said, which helps explain why some people tolerate the Macaques tugging out their hair.

I've never been a big flosser myself and while I've sometimes felt the inclination, the requisite material has never been conveniently to hand. It's never occurred to me until now that (unlike the monks that also inhabit the shrine) I've had a whole head-full of floss available to me all along and have usually made do with an improvised toothpick.
The research team from Kyoto University headed by primatologist Nobuo Masataka, distributed a wig-load of 20 cm long hairs throughout the shrine habitat and videotaped the primates engaged in using them as tools to clean between their teeth. Around 50 of the monkeys were observed pulling strands of hair back and forth between their teeth. 

The Kyoto team focused their research on seven female adult Macaques, each with a one-year-old infant. When the mothers sat facing their young, each bout of flossing was noted to take around twice as long as usual, and the mothers paused and repeated the process about twice as often. Similarly exaggerated behaviour occurs when human mothers teach their children, noted Masataka, who went on to state: 'These findings suggest education is a very ancient trait in the primate lineage'. Without wishing to denigrate the good professor nor devalue his research, it rather sounds like a revalation of the unconcealed. How else do young animals learn stuff, except by watching someone else?

HISTORICAL FOOTNOTE (for pub quiz fans)
Dental floss is an ancient invention, researchers have found dental floss and toothpick grooves in the teeth of prehistoric humans. Levi Spear Parmly (1790-1859), a New Orleans dentist is credited as being the inventor of modern dental floss (or maybe the term re-inventor would be more accurate). Parmly promoted teeth flossing with a piece of silk thread in 1815. In 1882, the Codman and Shurtleft Company of Randolph, Massachusetts started to mass-produce unwaxed silk floss for commercial home use. Johnson and Johnson Company of New Brunswick, New Jersey were the first to patent dental floss in 1898. Dr. Charles C. Bass developed nylon floss as a replacement for silk floss during WW II. Dr. Bass was responsible for making teeth flossing an important part of dental hygiene 


  1. Enjoyed your post - one correction re 'dental floss & toothpick grooves in prehistoric teeth' - dental floss does not leave grooves, so Levi Spear Parmly is the inventor of floss.

    I have sent corrections to the original source of this story, Mary Bellis of about.com but she has yet to correct the story.

    My guess is that the monkeys have seen humans flossing - until & unless it is observed in wild monkey populations.

  2. Thanks Screws. For reading the blog, and adding to (or rather, subtracting from) my flossing knowledge. But I don't know that I can agree with your guess that the monkey's are merely copying humans. Firstly, I don't think Thais are big into flossing, and certainly not in public nor, heaven forbid, when worshipping in a buddhist shrine. Also, in my meagre research of the subject, I learned that primates have previously been observed using twig fiber and coconut husks to achieve the same end. John

  3. I use a Gripit Floss Holder to floss - www.gripit.biz - so I don't have to put my fingers into my mouth. I wonder if monkeys can use a flossing tool as well as floss itself?


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