Zombie Birds shows us we still have a lot to learn about animals

This capuchin monkey pees on himself to show how sexually mature he is.

This capuchin monkey pees on himself to show how sexually mature he is.

I don’t know if I’m ever going to be able to look at those cute little capuchin monkeys the same way again after reading Zombie Birds, Astronaut Fish and Other Weird Animals by Becky Crew. My daughter and I watch their playful antics all the time at the Prospect Park Zoo.

But Crew goes into the latest monkey brain imaging research and explains that the boy little pink faced-urchins like to cover themselves in their own urine. And the girls dig it. The MRIs show the sexual part of the female brain lights up when she smells sexually mature male pee. And it’s not just some oddball fetish. The primatologist who reported the results, Kimberly Phillips of Trinity University, tells Crew: “Every capuchin I’ve seen–in the wild and in captivity–has engaged in this behavior at some point.”

Crew then tells the story of the behavior as if from the voice of each perverse animal. In the case of the capuchin, he’s giving dating advice: “In a club. Shots, pee on yourself, shots, repeat.”  These sections go on a bit too long and can be cloying in their attempt to simplify the science, but let me tell you, they stay with you.

The zombie birds in the title refer to great tits, which have recently been found to eat the brains of pipistrelle bats who are just waking up from hibernation.  They seem to have taught each other to listen for the sound of the bats waking up–or, at least after harsh winters when the tits are hungry. Here, Crew has two tits conversing with one just interrupting to say “Brains…” over and over.

Either this is a new development in bird behavior or people are just getting around to noticing. The research was only done in 2006. The stories that make up Zombie Birds are mainly based on recent academic research. Crew turns the data into entertaining sideshows. And in doing so, shows what interesting things we are still learning about how complex and freaky animals are.

Related posts:


On the advice of a right whale, we have closed comments for this post. If you have something really important to say, email us and we'd be delighted to reopen it for you. (The whale is only trying to prevent spam comments.)