Monkeys Social Networked Before Facebook Was Cool

Monkeys Facebooked the Old School Way

Facebook was founded in 2004, but monkeys have been social networking for over 50 million years, before Facebook was cool. Old World monkeys and apes are very social creatures, and show this quality through their colorful faces, nature’s own method of social networking — you might even say, the original Facebook. The brilliant and varied colors of their faces are in contrast to the plainer colored faces of monkeys and apes who are less social, and do not interact as much with other primates of their species.

Why the colors of the faces of some primates are more colorful than those of others has long been a matter of curiosity. Researchers at UCLA have finally developed a scientific theory to explain the differences between primates with colorful faces and primates with plainer, less colorful faces — it aids in their social interactions with each other.

The research findings of the UCLA team appear in the current issue of Nature Communications. The faces of 139 primate species were analyzed. The faces included ones of both Asian and Old World African primate species.

According to International Business (, see last source below), the research is based on earlier research conducted just last year involving the faces of 129 primate species, but the earlier research seemed to suggest that the opposite was true, that smaller groups of primates had more colorful faces.

While the initial study of 129 primate species involved apes and monkeys from Central and South America, the follow-up sought to see if the results also applied to Old World African and Asian species. Instead, the more recent research indicates that more complex coloration of the faces of Old World primates helps them in social networking among members of their own species.

The researchers noted the complex patches and arrays of colors on the faces of some of the primates they studied, and how diverse they were from individual to individual. This variation in coloration within the same species could be used to help them tell at a glance who their friends and enemies are.

Also, the researchers discovered that similar primate species which live closely together have even more complex color arrangements on their faces. This might, the UCLA researchers theorize, help them recognize individuals from their own species.

Michael Alfaro, who is one of the main authors of the study and is an associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, is one of the first authorities in the field to compare the complex social interactions of primates as it relates to the colors of their faces to Facebook. According to Alfaro, social interactions among primates involving their faces and the coloration of them have been going on “for the last 50 million years.”

He theorizes that this need for social interaction among primates of the same species who congregate in larger groups helps account for “the enormous diversity of faces we see across the group today.”

Primates such as orangutans, who live in smaller groups, have plainer colored faces, for example, than those of primates like mandrills, who often live in large social groups of several hundred members.

The UCLA scientists analyzed photos of the faces of primates, and they examined differences in coloration in the various regions of the faces. The researchers then assigned scores to the faces based on the complexity of them, and analyzed how the complexity of the primate faces was related to social variables.

The UCLA researchers found that the complexity of colors in primate faces is directly related to the size of the social group they lived in.

According to Jessica Alfaro, another co-author of the study,found that no matter where apes and monkeys lived, if their species “has a large social group” then the faces of the individual primates of the species “tends to be more complex.”

Facebook is a great way for humans to socially interact with each other, but humans, as well as primates, have relied upon facial expressions and face-to-face interactions for millions of years before Facebook was founded in 2004. While humans don’t have faces composed of as many varied colors as primates, we still communicate with each other through our facial expressions, the original method of social networking or with others.

Written by: Douglas Cobb

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