by Whit Gibbons
October 8, 2006
by experience is a natural trait of animals that have a brain. But the
learning process has many aspects and is often a challenge for scientists
to study. Recent research provided evidence that some nonhuman animals
can plan for the future in a very deliberate manner.
an item in anticipation of using it later is something people do every
day. Before you get in the car, you pick up the car keys. Before you leave
the house, you grab your wallet or purse. Are any other animals able to
deliberately select an item for future use? According to a series of experiments
by Nicholas J. Mulcahy and Josep Call of the Max Planck Institute for
Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, the answer is yes. At least
some animals other than humans can plan ahead.
or pygmy chimpanzees, are an endangered species native to the jungles
of the Congo region of Africa. The species, one of a group of animals
known as the great apes, has achieved a degree of notoriety because the
DNA of bonobos has a 98 percent overlap in similarity to that of humans.
This is scientific fact, so it should come as no surprise that these small
chimpanzees have learning capabilities that exceed those of other nonhuman
animals. Another of the great apes with cognitive learning abilities is
the organgutan. Two species are found on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra.
Colonies of bonobos and orangutans are kept in facilities at the Max Planck
Institute for testing to learn more about the biology of these fascinating
great apes are known for their intelligence, the researchers designed
tests to see if bonobos and orangutans could learn to select and transport
tools to be used at a later time. In other words, could they anticipate
that a particular tool would be useful in the future, even though there
was no use for it at the moment?
orangutans were led into a test room where they learned to use a plastic
tool to dislodge a reward of fresh grapes. After the learning session,
apes were taken to a waiting room with a window where they could watch
as the scientists removed the tools but left intact the reward apparatus
that held the grapes. Each ape being tested was kept in the waiting room
for one hour and then led back into the test room, where it was unable
to get the reward because the correct tool was no longer present. But
before the ape was returned to the waiting room, several tools were placed
in the test room. Some of tools were suitable for getting the grapes and
some were unsuitable. The only way for an ape to get the reward of grapes
on future trips to the test room was to pick up the proper tool when leaving,
carry it to the waiting room, and then return with it to the test room.
bonobos and three orangutans tested in the first experiment, all learned
within seven trials to pick the correct tool and return with it to the
test room. In 16 trials, one orangutan left and returned with the correct
tool 15 times. The six experimental animals left the room with a tool
70 percent of the time, and the choice of a correct tool, compared to
an inappropriate tool, was made a statistically significant proportion
of the time. In another experiment, one of both species of test animals
was placed in a waiting room for 14 hours between access to the tools
and its return to the feeding apparatus. This means that they would have
to select a tool and keep up with it for several hours before it would
the apes excelled. The two test animals successfully carried proper tools
when they left the test room in 19 of 24 trials and returned with the
correct tool 15 times. Demonstrably, apes can choose, keep, and return
with a tool appropriate for future use. The researchers conclude that
a propensity for planning for future needs evolved at least 14 million
years ago, a time when chimpanzees and orangutans had a common ancestor.
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