The little Chimpanzee, named Obaye, was born at Zoo Basel and is the son of 24-year-old Kitoko. He is the youngest offshoot of the Zoo’s twelve-strong group of Chimpanzees. At the moment, he is still too small to take part in the study, but Obaye will have an opportunity to participate in the future. Hopefully, the young male will provide valuable information for the researchers.
A group of researchers from the University of Neuchâtel (led by Prof. Klaus Zuberbühler) is interested in how apes absorb and process information and how they solve problems. Scientists call this cognitive research.
The study is conducted by observing how the Chimps approach different situations. A screen is installed in their enclosure and tasks appear on the screen (example: the Chimpanzee must identify a tree from among other objects). If they tap the right solution on the touch screen, they automatically receive a small reward. The next step tests whether their ability to identify the image changes if it is accompanied by a sound recording. The researchers gradually set increasingly complex tasks, and their long-term objective is to study how apes communicate and how this affects learning and memory.
However, to help the Chimpanzees learn how to work the screen, the first task is a simple one: the screen lights up green and the Chimpanzee touches it for a reward.
The Chimpanzees have access to the screen for two hours every working day, and then they have the weekends ‘free’, although this is more to do with the researchers’ workload than that of the Chimpanzees. All members of the group who enjoy completing the task are able to do so, whilst those who are not interested can simply ignore the screen. Whilst some of Zoo Basel’s Chimpanzees eagerly collected their rewards, twelve-year-old Colebe was only interested in completing the tasks and chose to leave the food rewards behind. Newborn Obaye’s mother, Kitoko, has not shown any interest in the screen, as she is currently busy with her little one.
The Gorilla and Orangutan enclosures at Zoo Basel will also soon be fitted with screens to allow a comparison of cognitive abilities in the three primate species. The researchers have been trained by Basel’s zoo keepers to allow them to work near the apes, and they are also helping with everyday animal care: it is not just the apes but also the zoo keepers who are being set new tasks as a result of the university collaboration, so assistance with everyday work is welcome.
The collaboration with the University of Neuchâtel is still in its infancy, but the project is designed to last for several years and should help to study the cognitive abilities of the apes.