How Do Apes Think?

Chimpanzees and gorillas are amazing in their own right, but they can also teach us a lot about ourselves. These species use tools, plan for the future, communicate with their group mates…and deceive them. Sound familiar?

Zoo scientists are committed to understanding animal behavior. Indeed, our home for gorillas and chimpanzees—Regenstein Center for African Apes—was specifically designed to bring together science and care. A termite mound stocked with goodies offers enrichment for apes and data for researchers. Exchange stations let chimpanzees trade tokens for treats, and special touch-screens offer a window into how apes think and learn.

Recently, our gorillas and chimpanzees have accomplished some pretty amazing results with the touch-screen research. They started by simply learning how to sequence objects on the screen (receiving a tasty reward for putting them in the proper order). Some mastered this task, adding objects one by one, until they were doing nine at a time.

Gorilla Kwan sequences items on the touch-screen.

Gorilla Kwan sequences items on the touch-screen.

So our researchers, led by Fisher Center Director Steve Ross, decided to take the touch-screen studies to the next level. The apes are still sequencing objects. But now the objects only flash on the screen for an instant before they’re blocked out, making the apes complete the sequence from memory.

It’s an exciting development, one that can provide a deeper understanding of working memory and learning in these amazing animals. Bachelor gorilla Azizi is the current “star” of the research program, having moved up to sequencing four objects by memory at once.

Want to see how he does it? Visit our special “Gorilla Gamers” interactive page—and then try the sequencing task yourself!

Chimpanzees have used touch-screens for studies like this in labs around the world, but Lincoln Park Zoo is a pioneer in using the technology with gorillas. The results are very exciting. As you’ll see in the link above, though, Azizi still has a ways to go before he can go sequence-to-sequence with chimpanzee Ayumu at Kyoto University.

Kevin Bell


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