WASHINGTON -- Dan the baboon sits in front of a computer screen. The letters BRRU pop up. With a quick and almost dismissive tap, the monkey signals it's not a word. Correct. Next comes ITCS. Again, not a word.
Finally, KITE comes up.
He pauses and hits a green oval to show it's a word. In the space of just a few seconds, Dan has demonstrated a mastery of what some experts say is a form of pre-reading and walks away rewarded with a treat of dried wheat.
Dan is part of new research that shows baboons are able to pick up the first step in reading: identifying recurring patterns and determining which four-letter combinations are words and which are gobbledygook.
The study shows that reading's early steps are far more instinctive than scientists first thought and it indicates that nonhuman primates may be smarter than we give them credit for.
Baboons and other monkeys are good pattern finders and what they are doing may be what we first do in recognizing words.
It's still a far cry from real reading. They don't understand what these words mean, and are just breaking them down into parts, said Jonathan Grainger, lead author of the research and a cognitive psychologist at the Aix-Marseille University in France.
In 300,000 tests, the six baboons distinguished between real and fake words about three out of four times, according to the study published in yesterday's journal Science.
The 4-year-old Dan, the star of the bunch and about the equivalent age of a human teenager, got 80 percent of the words right and learned 308 four-letter words.
The baboons are rewarded with food when they press the right spot on the screen.
The experiments were done in France, but the researchers used English words because it is the language of science, Grainger said.
The baboons weren't forced to take the test. They could choose when they wanted to work, going to one of the 10 computer booths at any time, even in the middle of the night.