Chimp Plans For The Future
May 11, 2012

Chimp Plans For The Future

Brett Smith for

A chimpanzee at a Swedish zoo first thought to be a nuisance has now been identified as the first animal of its kind to demonstrate the higher brain function of planning for future events in an attempt to solve a problem.

Santino the chimpanzee first achieved international notoriety in 2009 for his ritual of gathering stones to throw at zoo visitors. But his real claim to fame might be the study published in the May 9 edition of PLos ONE, which asserts that the chimp is able to plan to deceive observers, and these plans are designed to carry out these aggressive displays more effectively.

The study, carried out by a team from Lund University, said the chimp´s behavior showed methodical, yet spontaneous planning for a future event. They disputed claims that the primate was simply demonstrating associative learning, or the ability to repeat previously learned behaviors and responses. Interestingly, Santino´s psychological state during his ℠planning stage´ was visibly quite different from that of his later aggressive displays.

While being observed during the 2010 zoo season, Santino would use existing and manufactured locations for stashing his future projectiles. These caches were all located near the visitors´ area, enabling the chimp to throw his missiles before an on-looking crowd had time to back away.

In order to make some of these concealments for his stones, Santino had brought the hay from a different part of his enclosure. Also, Santino was observed combining two deception strategies: hiding projectiles and inhibiting the displays of dominance that otherwise preceded his throws. This type of complex planning was previously thought to be exclusive to humans.

Evidence of Santino´s previously unnoticed behavior was first seen during the run-up to the 2010 zoo season.  In May of that year, a zoo guide led visitors toward Santino´s island compound. The chimpanzee began to engage in a typical dominance display: screeching, standing on two feet, and carrying a stone in his hand. The guide and the visitors retreated before Santino began hurling the stone. The group then advanced again and again for a total of three approaches. When a group returned about 3 hours later, Santino advanced toward them, holding two stones. This time, the chimp did not act aggressively and appeared to casually take bites from an apple. Once Santino slowly meandered within close range of the group, he suddenly threw one of the stones.

The chimp would refine his methods over the course of the 2010 season, including the building and use of hiding places for the stones. The researchers concluded that Santino´s hiding of stones was not simply a trivial event that would lend itself to preparation for later aggressive displays.

The scientists concluded that chimpanzees may be able to predict the future behavior of others while those others are not present. It is also critical that the chimpanzee´s initial behavior produced a future event, rather than merely preparing for one that had reliably occurred before. This suggest a flexible planning ability which, in humans, relies on creative re-combining of memories and scenarios, mentally played out on some level for the purposes of problem solving.