Nest-building in primates
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In the primate order, nest-building behaviour is displayed by prosimians and the great apes. Extant monkeys, both old and new world no longer nest. Prosimians build nests instinctively for long durations and these are used not just for sleeping but also raising for families. Great apes build nests for sleeping at night, and in some cases the nests are built for sleeping in the day as well. Nest-building by great apes is learned by infants from the mother and others in the group and is considered a matter of tool use, not just animal architecture.
It has been speculated that a major evolutionary advance in the cognitive abilities of hominoids may first have occurred due to the development of nest-building behaviour and that the transition from nest-building to ground-sleeping led to "modifications in the quality and quantity of hominid sleep, which in turn may have enhanced waking survival skills through priming, promoted creativity and innovation, and aided the consolidation of procedural memories".
Nest building in prosimians
Prosimians may be nocturnal, diurnal, or crepuscular. Some may either occupy holes in trees or build nests. Unlike the great apes, prosimians build nests by instinct and use them for breeding purposes. Prosimian mothers either carry their young on their bodies, conceal their young in foliage while they venture out to feed, returning periodically to feed and groom them, or leave them in a nest built for that purpose.
Amongst lemurs, females of smaller species, such as mouse lemur and giant mouse lemurs, build leaf nests before birth for the protection of young. Leaf nests in golden-brown mouse lemurs may provide thermoregulation benefits. Male mouse lemurs have been found sharing nests with up to seven females at a time during the mating season.
In larger lemur species such as Verreaux's sifaka, ring-tailed lemur and common brown lemur the young cling to the mother and nests are not built. Nests are made from locally collected material and may also be lined with hair plucked from its own body, as in the case of Ruffed lemur (Varecia variegata).
Aye-ayes, being nocturnal, build oval-shaped nests from nearby branches and lianas for day time use. These may be built in a tangle of lianas or in a fork of a tree, at a height of 7 to 20 metres (23 to 66 ft) above the ground. These nests may be re-used by other aye-aye once the original occupant moves on. A single occupant uses a nest for a few days at a time refreshing it regularly with fresh vegetation. Aye-ayes build and use many nests - during a particular study, eight aye-ayes have been recorded to build and use as many as a hundred different nests over a period of two years.
Lesser bushbaby mothers initially shelter their offspring, usually twins, in a nest or tree hollow, later on concealing the infants in foliage while they forage at night. In some species, such as dwarf galagos, the day-sleeping nests may be shared by groups of females or occasionally by visiting males.
Nest building in great apes
Great apes construct nests by day or by night, primarily for resting. The nests are not built using instinct but through behavioural patterns which are learned by the young from their mother. Nest building is habitual behaviour, and nest-counts and faecal analysis at each nest site can be used to estimate great ape population counts and composition. In the case of orangutans and chimpanzees, social influences are probably essential for the animals to develop successful nesting-behaviour.
Gorillas construct nests for daytime and night use. Day nests tend to be simple aggregations of branches and leaves on the ground while night nests are more elaborate constructions in trees. The nests may be 2 to 5 feet (0.61 to 1.5 m) in diameter and are constructed by individuals. The young nest with the mother but construct nests after three years of age, initially close to that of their mother. Gorilla nests are distributed arbitrarily and use of tree species for site and construction appears to be opportunistic.
Chimpanzees and bonobos
Nest-building is seen in chimpanzees and bonobos who construct arboreal night nests by lacing together branches from one or more trees. It forms an important part of behaviour, especially in the case of mothers who teach this trait to infants. Nests consist of a mattress, supported on a strong foundation, and lined above with soft leaves and twigs. Nests are built in trees which have a minimum diameter of 5 metres (16 ft) and may be located at a height of 3 to 45 metres (9.8 to 148 ft). Day as well as night nests are built. Nests may be located in groups.
Orangutans build day as well as night nests. These are carefully constructed; young orangutans learn from observing their mother's nest-building behaviour. In fact, nest-building is a leading cause in young orangutans leaving their mother for the first time. From six months of age onwards, orangutans practice nest building and gain proficiency by the time they are three years old.
Construction of a night nest is done by following a sequence of steps. Initially a suitable tree is located, orangutans being selective about sites even though many tree species are utilised. The foundation is then built by pulling together branches under them and joining them at a point. After the foundation has been built, the orang bends smaller, leafy branches onto the foundation; this serves the purpose of and is termed as the "mattress". After this orangutans stand and braid the tips of branches into the mattress. This increases the stability of the nest and forms the final act of nest building.
In addition, orangutans may add additional features such as "pillows", "blankets", "roofs" and "bunk-beds" to their nest. Orangutans make "pillows" by clumping together leafy branches with the leaves in the centre and the twig shoots pointed outward. They bite the twigs ostensibly to blunt sharp ends. Pillows are added to night nests but are usually absent from day nests. A "blanket" consists of large leafy branches with which an orangutan covers himself after lying down. Orangutans may create a waterproof overhead shelter for the nest by braiding together a loose selection of branches. They may also make a "bunk-nest" or "bunk-bed", a few metres above the main nest.
Evolution of nest-building behaviour
A study examining various aspects of primate behaviour, notably during inactivity and the care of young, when mapped onto the phylogeny of primates, has revealed that the use of tree holes or self-constructed nests, to rest while inactive, figure importantly in the life-history strategies of many species of prosimians and some species of New World monkeys.
Alternate lifestyles of primate infant care which involve carriage of infants instead of parking have evolved a number of times and conserved but are found to have reproductive costs and generally slower rates of poulation increase than nesting species.
Use of nests for parking of young is thought to have evolved from basal nocturnal primates with solitary habits which possibly led to the evolution of nesting and parking behaviour in prosimians such as galagoes. Galagoes give birth to single young which is left in a nest as an infant and carried to a parking place in the vegetation orally by the mothers. In addition, the use of nests or tree holes as shelters for young infants differs functionally from the use of resting places by adult animals (which may be accompanied by infants).
The use of shelters has also evolved secondarily amongst great apes for functional purposes. Also, the evolution of larger litters in some prosimian species was found to be significantly associated with the presence of shelters which are used in most but not all cases by adults of the species for resting.
- National Geographic image of Aye-aye on nest with caption "An aye-aye wakes in its arboreal sleeping nest to begin foraging."
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