Primates are Awesome!

I don’t think I really need to say just how awesome primates are.  By primates, I mean all of them, from monkeys all the way to greater apes.  Even humans, most of the time, are pretty awesome.  This site is actually entitled Nerd Monkey because of my love for these animals, which was the same reason my choice of education was evolutionary biology.  I wanted to learn how we became what we are today and how our ancestors, through our cousins, influenced that.

So, I thought it would be fun today to highlight some of the more famous and most interesting primates of all time.  From astronauts to clones, these animals have given us more than we can ever express to them.

Enos the Chimp

Meet Enos the Chimp.  Enos was the first chimpanzee to be launched into earth’s orbit on board the Mercury Atlas 5 in November of 1961.  Enos’ history is a little rare, as he was originally purchased from the Miami Rare Bird Farm in April of 1960 before preparing for his mission at the University of Kentucky and Holloman Air Force Base in more than 1,250 hours of highly strenuous training.

Only three days before the launch of Mercury Atlas 5 was Enos actually chosen for this mission.  Enos completed his first orbit in just one hour and twenty-nine minutes, making him the first known living being to actually orbit the earth at high altitudes.  The craft was not maintaining proper altitudes, however, and Enos was only able to complete two full orbits of the earth.  He was brought back to earth and according to reports, Enos “jumped for joy and ran around the deck of the recovery ship shaking the hands of his rescuers.”

Unfortunately, Enos’ health declined after returning to earth, and because of an acute bacterial infection of the lines of the intestines known as shigellosis, which at the time was resistant to antibiotics, died of dysentery on November 4, 1962.  It should be noted, however, that his condition was in no way related to his mission into space, according to pathologists who examined Enos post-mortem.  Yet, the exact location of Enos’s remains is still a mystery to scholars around the globe today and may never be known.

Koko the Gorilla

I’m sure everyone has heard of Koko the Gorilla.  The references to this amazing specimen have been made in pop and sub cultures since he was first revealed to the public.  However, if you’re not familiar with this amazing being, here’s the rundown:  Koko is a western lowland gorilla (Gorilla gorilla gorilla – yes that’s their actual nomenclature) who was born in 1971 at the San Francisco Zoo.  According to one of her trainers, Francine Patterson, Koko was able to understand more than a thousand signs based on American sign language, as well as over two-thousand spoken English words.

Koko was not just an amazing wordsmith in animal terms, but was also a photographer and chatroom guru, so to speak.  Seen above is Koko being shown how to operate a video camera, which according to Patterson, has been a hobby of Koko’s ever since.  Koko was also the first gorilla to participate in an online chatroom.  In an event in April of 1998, an online chat took place on America Online (remember that?) which featured Koko the gorilla nearly being able to complete sentences to those chatting with her online.  Granted, the sentences were scrambled, as grammar is a whole different world from language itself, Koko said things in the chat such as, “Lips fake candy give me.”  I’m sure you can see what she was getting at.

According to sources, Koko also has a rather disturbing nipple fetish.  In fact, a lawsuit was brought against the San Francisco Zoo for sexual harrassment.  A few female employees claim they were told to expose themselves to Koko to appease her human nipple fetish (nipple was a request Koko apparently still makes to this day).  You cannot wrong Koko for this, however, as Koko really has no way of understanding even why we as humans wear clothes, let alone why it would be shameful for us to take them off.  Quite frankly, I have a hard time understanding that from time to time, but I digress.

Koko still lives comfortably today and enjoys keeping pets.  Although Koko’s first cat, All Ball, escaped from her cage and was hit by a car.  After this happened, Koko responded in a very human-like fashion, signing sentences like, “Bad, sad, bad,” and, “Bad, sad, frown, cry.”  Koko, in 1985, picked out two kittens from a local rescue and named them Lipstick and Smokey.  Koko stands as evidence that non-human species are like is in more ways than simple DNA structure, and tend to show emotions similar to ours.  And if we give them the gift of language, they could easily learn to express this emotion in a far more civilized way than many of us humans tend to.

Binti Jua the Gorilla

Meet Binti Jua, the Gorilla.  Binti Jua is another western lowland gorilla, famous for saving the life of a child who fell into a gorilla pen at the Brookfield Zoo just outside of Chicago.  The child fell eighteen feet into her enclosure and was immediately rendered unconscious.  She was only eight-years-old at the time, and the child was three.  According to reports, while one of the other gorillas in the enclosure were reacting in a hostile toward the child, Binti quickly jumped to the child’s rescue.  She carried the child under her arm as she did her own children, running over sixty feet to an entrance to hand the child over to zoo trainers.  The child spent four days in the hospital, but quickly recovered.  Since then, Binti Jua has been known as a hero.

It is debated to this day whether or not this action was the result of her zoo training, which required her to hand her own children over to zoo trainers for regular examination, or this was a case of animal altruism.  Though animal altruism is nothing new and is a contributing force in pack (or band, in this case) survival, and also a contributing force to both human evolution and our overall emotional development, in this case, there is an argument to be made for her training being at least a composite factor in the rescue of the child.

Nim Chimpsky

Named after noted philosopher and linguist, Noam Chomsky, Nim Chimpsky was a rather famous chimpanzee himself, who was the basis for Project Nim, an infamous study in which was was raised from two-weeks-old by surrogate human parents.  This project was designed to dispute Chomsky’s thesis that language is only inherent in humans as we are the only species who is wired for language.  I think most biologists would argue that Chomsky’s thesis is a tad misguided and that he should probably stick to philosophy, but either way, the study of Nim has been disputed by reputable sources as well.

Project Nim has also been adapted into a documentary film by James Marsh, produced by BBC films.  The DVD was released in January of this year.  A film that not only displayed some of the flaws in the methodology of the project, but also some blatant mistreatment of the animal.

Unfortunately for Nim, while being able to learn some sign language and learning to participate in human social activity, Hubert S. Terrace who headed the study has since said the entirety of the study was based on misinformation, as are most primate language studies, which is certainly true to an extent, or at least it was at the time.  Those skeptical of the methodology of Project Nim, including Allen and Beatrix Gardner, who headed up a similar and more successful project, The Washoe Project, argued that the animal was not able to harness his full abilities because of his environment.  Whereas in The Washoe Project, the subject was taken into a human home and literally raised like a human child.  Nim, on the other hand, took place in a laboratory setting, where as you can imagine, a human child probably wouldn’t develop well either.

In usual human fashion, once Nim outlived his worth, he was released to a pharmaceutical lab in the south, where he was the subject of drug testing.  He was finally released and taken in by The Black Beauty Ranch, which was run by the Fund for Animals, until his death of a heart attack at the age of 26.

ANDi the "Mostly" Rhesus Macaque

Primates love to beat us to the punch.  It wasn’t enough they predate us by several thousand generations, but they had to beat us to space as well.  They also had to be the first to be cloned!  ANDi (inserted DNA spelled backward) was the first genetically modified rhesus macaque, born in 2000 in Oregon.  What you’re seeing above isn’t just the first genetically modified rhesus macaque, but is actually the first glow-in-the-dark monkey in existence.  ANDi’s DNA was spliced with that of a jellyfish, having had a gene known as Green Fluorescent Protein (GFP) added to his DNA sequence, causing him to have a natural bioluminescence.

Now, there are those who, despite the overwhelming cuteness of ANDi, would dispute this type of research, not just calling it unethical, but calling it unnecessary.  However, it’s certainly neither.  This kind of genetic research into gene splicing can and probably will lead to the cures for the more complicated human diseases, such as AIDS and cancer.  I won’t even go into the ethics, as nobody or nothing was harmed in the entirety of the overwhelmingly complicated and drawn out experiment.  ANDi was one of three successful births in the experiment, out of forty embryos, but was the only one to carry the GFP gene.

Able the rhesus Monkey

Meet Able the Rhesus Monkey.  The US Army Ape-O-Naut flew Jupiter AM-18 mission in may of 1959 with Baker, who will be discussed in the section below. Able died on 1 June 1959 from the effects of anesthesia given to allow the removal of electrodes implanted for the historic space flight.  Below is a video of Able and Baker released by NASA in 1959.

Baker the Squirrel Monkey

Miss Baker accompanied Able in the Jupiter Mission, bringing back the best evidence to date that humans could survive travel in outer space.  Miss Baker was born in 1957, just two years before leaving the earth for space travel, and died in 1984.

Tetra the Rhesus Macaque

I know.  Cuteness overload, right?  This is Tetra the Rhesus Macaque.  Tetra, born in 1999, was the first ever cloned primate, cloned through a process called embryo splitting, where an embryo is split in maturation before the embryo transfer.  Tetra currently lives at the Oregon National Primate Research Center and is a perfectly healthy specimen to this day.

Thanks for reading, and remember to keep up to date on the animals mentioned here who are still alive today.  They have led very interesting lives and have done so much for the advancement of food and medicine, that we could never truly display our gratitude toward them.


Note:  Upon publishing this piece on famous primates of history, I had not yet heard of the passing of Monkees vocalist Davy Jones at the age of 66.  This article is in no way related to his passing, nor was it meant as a pun.  Rest in peace, Davy Jones.

[Sources:, Wikipedia, Scientific American, American Scientist, Nature, Genetics, Science Today]


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