- Bangladesh diaries: tales of a trainee tiger conservationist
- Introducing the Tiger Team
- The big picture of tiger conservation
- Visiting my Chagossian heritage – Yannick Mandarin
- ZSL Cameroon Wildlife Wood Project Bulletin (January to March 2013)
- Egypt Expedition – Meet the team
- The new Principles and Criteria are approved, but challenges remain
- There’s no right way to eat a rhesus
- The RSPO endorses the ZSL High Conservation Value Monitoring System
- Andrea: I think the statement "hunters with metal ammuniti...
- Elsa Lamb: WOW! what an adventure. So sad to see the original...
- Elsa Lamb: What wonderful work you do, I'm so proud of you Ta...
- Marcus Felson: A new center on wildlife crime. A new Symposium t...
- Marcus Felson: Increasingly criminologists are looking at wildlif...
How to challenge a chimpanzee
Posted on October 6, 2011
As a PhD student at the Institute of Zoology (IoZ), the scientific research arm of the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), I get up close and personal with chimpanzees. However, unlike my IoZ colleagues who study primates in the wild my PhD ‘fieldwork’ is currently based at ZSL Whipsnade Zoo. This is a fantastic example of how IoZ science can inform zoo animal management at ZSL.
Chimpanzees are our closest living relatives, and therefore scientists have been studying the ‘mental lives’ (cognition) of chimpanzees for over a century. By looking at how chimpanzees behave and how their brains work, we can understand what makes us uniquely human. Chimpanzees have many cognitive skills similar to our own. For example, we have evidence that chimpanzees are self-aware (they can recognise themselves in a mirror), they can remember past events and plan for the future (sometimes called mental time travel), and can solve complex novel problems. However, their natural history is obviously very different to ours.
My research uses previous chimpanzee research to try and enhance the lives of chimpanzees at ZSL. I hope to determine whether chimpanzees have improved well-being when their cognitive skills are pushed to the natural limit. To give you an idea of how this works, think of a crossword puzzle. You might be motivated to do the puzzle in the first place, because you like a challenge. Engaging in this challenge makes you satisfied (unless of course, the crossword is too difficult and you have to sneak a peek at the answers!). Completing the puzzle makes you feel even more satisfied. Perhaps you had lost track of time while doing the puzzle, and you look forward to another puzzle in future.
The same concepts can be applied to chimpanzees. Chimpanzees are highly social, very motivated to find food, and can usually adapt well to novel situations. Previous research shows us what their eyesight is like and how their fingers work. We also know what sort of problems their brains are capable of solving. With this information at hand, I have been designing novel cognitive challenges for chimpanzees at ZSL. These challenges aim to stimulate chimpanzees in the same way we are stimulated by crossword or Sudoku puzzles, but with respect to their natural history. So far, the challenges I have designed are based on getting food, known in primatology as ‘extractive foraging’. However, I have also been looking at whether chimpanzees are motivated to solve problems without a food reward, and how they operate as a team to solve these problems.
Challenging chimpanzees is not easy! To my surprise, this PhD has required me to be a product designer, wildlife camerawomen and outdoor survival expert (since ZSL Whipsnade Zoo is much colder than the rainforests of Africa!). It is important to get close to the chimpanzees without them feeling watched, to prevent distracting them from cognitive tasks. Designing a chimpanzee-proof puzzle has certainly caused a few headaches, since chimpanzees are six times stronger than the average man and have destructive natures. But as soon as I catch the ‘Aha!’ moment on camera, when a chimpanzee solves a new problem for themselves and appears to be satisfied by this, all the hard work feels worth it. I have been sharing my research findings with zoo visitors, in conference presentations and in scientific articles, and hope that in future I can develop cognitive challenges for more species at ZSL.
PhD student at the Zoological Society of London