Big brains don’t make you smarter about everything

I was just admiring the beautiful sari of the young woman ahead of me, when she let out a scream and fell flat on her backside. The bag she had been holding had just been snagged, and the thief was just a few steps down from her, brazenly going through it’s contents, pausing occasionally to warn her off with a glare. She was too terrified to move.

I’ve always wondered what I would do if faced with a situation like this, and now I know: I laughed. And it wasn’t just a little laugh either; it was a big belly laugh.

Maybe I’m a bad person.

In my defense, the young woman’s whole family was laughing too – and they were laughing way harder than me; it was tough not to. The thief in question was only a foot tall, and kind of cute, as macaques tend to be.

Macaque with ice cream cone

Trying to figure out what to do with ice cream

It was one of many thefts I saw today. Earlier, I’d seen another macaque steal an ice cream cone right out of a boy’s hand. And moments after the sari clad bottom hit the stair below me, I heard another scream and turned just in time to see macaque running up a pole with a bag of peanuts I’m pretty sure he didn’t buy himself.


So here’s my travel tip for the day: if you run across a troop of monkeys, and you happen to be holding food, just give it to them. It’s easier on everyone.

Macaque with peanuts

After the peanut heist

Macaques think about food more than Parisians, and one reason for that is the inferiority of their spit. Turns out one of the things that distinguishes us from other primates is a few extra copies of the amylase gene – something I learned on the train this morning (from the June 9 issue of New Scientist) as I was on my way to Batu Caves (the site of the aforementioned thefts). That means that we produce more salivary amylase, the digestive enzyme that breaks down starches – and that allows us to extract more energy from starchy grains and roots. Other primates are stuck eating lower calorie foods like fruits and leaves, and the net of it is that they have to spend much of their time foraging and chewing. Fun fact.

But here’s the irony: thanks in part to our saliva, we can support big energy-hungry brains without eating constantly, which means we think less about food, and – based on my observations today – are dumber than relatively small-brained macaques when it comes to food and food waste. Photographic evidence follows…

Monkey drinking from carton

Some human thought this was garbage, but this macaque realized there was still food to be had here

Macaque eating flowers

Most humans don’t realize flowers are food – even this infant knows better

Macaque eating coconut

Many folks drink the milk then throw them away, but there is lots of food left, and it’s worth the effort to get it out

Macaque eating banana

If you’re smart, nothing goes to waste

I posted more pictures if Batu and Malaysia here.