Great Ape Economics?
With Kevin in Charleston this week for the AZA Mid-Year Meeting, he graciously lent me this space to offer an update on the zoo’s work with great apes.
For those who don’t know me, I’m Steve Ross, director of Lincoln Park Zoo’s Lester E. Fisher Center for the Study and Conservation of Apes. Headquartered behind the scenes at Regenstein Center for African Apes (RCAA), the Fisher Center partners with our animal care experts to study how apes think, how apes behave and how people can better care for and conserve these amazing endangered species.
You’ve probably seen Fisher Center scientists during your zoo visits. If you’ve ever wondered why someone was taking notes on a tablet near the chimpanzees or gorillas, you likely spotted one of our interns doing behavioral monitoring. Fisher Center scientists also administer regular public cognitive sessions where apes sequence objects on a touch-screen computer.
With the recent arrival of research scientist Lydia Hopper, Ph.D., we’ve just started an exciting new cognition study at RCAA. To learn how apes learn from one another—and respond to different rewards—we’ve started a token-exchange program. Right now, several times a week, the chimpanzees can gather sections of PVC tubing from a bin. They can then immediately exchange that “token” for a carrot (an ok treat, from their point of view), or they can head around the corner to trade it for a grape (a better treat).
As Hank and his group become more familiar with the process, we’ll add more complications in the path to the superior reward. We’re interested in following along as they potentially learn that different degrees of effort produce different degrees of reward: i.e., basic economics.
In other exciting news, we have field scientists David Morgan (a research fellow in the Fisher Center) and Crickette Sanz visiting the zoo this week. This husband-and-wife research team spend much of their time in the Republic of Congo’s remote Goualougo Triangle, where they study the behavior of chimpanzees, gorillas and other wildlife in a largely untouched ecosystem.
Their research there has revealed never-before-seen behaviors, such as chimpanzees “punching” termite mounds with special tools to better access the bugs within. I look forward to the time collaborating on plans for future zoo projects in the Goualougo Triangle’s living laboratory—and reviewing some of the latest terabytes of video footage in our Goualougo video lab, headquartered at RCAA.
Thanks again to Kevin, both for offering me this space and for his commitment to Lincoln Park Zoo’s being a global leader in great ape research and conservation. Thanks also to all of you who support this wonderful zoo and make our work possible.
Steve Ross, Ph.D.