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Baboons help discover new type of tangerine

January 17, 2011 |  7:50 pm

Baboon JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — When it comes to grabbing fruit off trees, baboons don't monkey around. Now their speed at gobbling up quickly ripening fruit has led to a discovery of what is believed to be a new type of tangerine.

South African farmer Alwyn van der Merwe said workers noticed several years ago that one of his tangerine trees was already stripped of fruit when the other trees were ready for picking. The same thing happened the next year and the next. A farmworker finally solved the mystery when he saw baboons picking the tree clean. This one tree was making ripe tangerines three to four weeks ahead of the others.

Van der Merwe said tests showed the fruit is sweeter and ripens faster. He produced more of the trees using grafts. His ALG Estates, a family citrus business north of Cape Town, will soon be exporting the tangerines, van der Merwe said.

"There is a big market in the U.S.," he noted. "Especially when you're earlier."

Getting to market before other suppliers means higher prices can be charged.

Justin Chadwick, head of South Africa's Citrus Growers Assn., said experts are constantly trying to develop varieties in laboratories that ripen either earlier or later than normal.

Van der Merwe believes that his tree naturally mutated, something that Chadwick said does occur and that farmers should keep an eye out for.

Van der Merwe may be bagging extra profits, but he recognizes that he had help.

"The baboons were right," the farmer said.

Van der Merwe said he might give the baboons credit when he names his new variety.

At the very least, he said, he'll leave them a crate of the tangerines next harvest.

RELATED BABOON STORIES:
Baboons: The wine connoisseurs of the animal kingdom
Your morning adorable: Baby baboon explores in Germany's Hagenbeck Zoo

-- Donna Bryson, Associated Press

Photo: A baboon at the Constantia Uitsig wine estate near Cape Town, South Africa, in 2010. Credit: Schalk van Zuydam / Associated Press

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