Two chimpanzees in exhibit

Studying How Primates Innovate and Learn

Chimpanzee in exhibit

Purpose

By observing primates as they use tools and solve novel puzzles at Lincoln Park Zoo, zoo scientists can better understand how apes and monkeys innovate and learn.

About

By offering the primates novel puzzles, zoo scientists can study how readily the chimpanzees, gorillas, and Japanese macaques at Lincoln Park Zoo solve these tasks and whether they can discover the most efficient solution. Not only do such studies provide insights into primate cognition, but they also allow zoo scientists and the zoo’s Animal Care team to understand the primates’ individual skills and preferences—ensuring that they continue to receive the highest level of care.

Studying Social Learning

Social learning describes how one animal can learn a new skill by observing the actions of another. By presenting primates with a novel task, researchers can observe whether they rely on trial-and-error learning or whether they learn from—and copy—the actions of a group mate who already knows how to solve the task.

Great ape tool use offers an excellent way for zoo scientists to study social learning. Chimpanzees use tools for more purposes than any other animal except humans. In contrast, gorillas are rarely known to use tools in the wild. However, the absence of tool-use behavior doesn’t mean an animal is incapable of social learning, and by studying both chimpanzees and gorillas, zoo scientists can shed light on both the similarities and differences between these two great ape species.

Japanese macaques are naturally curious. They are also renowned for the behavioral “cultures” they exhibit in the wild. For example, some wild troops of Japanese macaques wash their food before eating it, while others sit in hot springs to stay warm. Zoo scientists study how the Japanese macaques at Lincoln Park Zoo explore novel problems and whether local cultures emerge as the monkeys watch each other solve tasks.

Using Technology to Study Primate Cognition

Zoo scientists use a range of technological tools, such as touchscreen computers, to understand how chimpanzees, gorillas, and Japanese macaques think and feel.

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Staff

Stephen Ross, Ph.D.
Director
Lester E. Fisher Center for the Study and Conservation of Apes
Lydia Hopper, Ph.D.
Assistant Director
Lester E. Fisher Center for the Study and Conservation of Apes
Sarah Huskisson, M.S.
Research Assistant
Lester E. Fisher Center for the Study and Conservation of Apes
Jesse Leinwand, M.A.
Research Assistant
Lester E. Fisher Center for the Study and Conservation of Apes