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Social lemurs make better larcenists, scientists say

Social lemurs were found to be better thieves than their less social counterparts, in a study that could have implications for how animal intelligence in measured.

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Seven weeks old ring-tailed lemur twins sit in their enclosure in the Zoo in Erfurt, Germany, in May 2013. A recent experiment found that social lemurs make better thieves than do lemurs that live in small social groups.

Jens Meyer/AP

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If you ever have the occasion to dine with a lemur, choose one from a small social group.

Researchers from Duke University have found that lemurs living in large social groups are smarter thieves, a find that could have implications for how scientists measure primate intelligence, which is usually correlated with brain size.

Researchers first trained 60 lemurs to see humans as their competitors for food and then arranged an experiment that gave the animals a choice between which human to steal food from: A person placidly staring down the lemur, or another person facing away from the lemur, their food left vulnerable. 

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The lemurs from small social groups were indiscriminate in which food they went after, reaching as often for the vulnerable food as they did for the well-protected items. But the lemurs that came from large groups were savvier. They could read the social cues, and those cunning animals were more likely to target the food that the humans had left foolishly unguarded.

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