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Stone Throwing Chimp Suggests Animals Make Plans

March 10, 2009

A Swedish study showed on Monday what it believes to be the first evidence that an animal other than humans can make spontaneous plans for future events, the Associated Press reported.

Researchers have been observing a 31-year-old alpha male chimpanzee named Santino collect small stashes of rocks to throw at patrons of the Furuvik Zoo, about 93 miles north of Stockholm.

The chimp’s anti-social behavior stunned both visitors and keepers at the zoo and researchers soon became interested in his carefully prepared attacks.

Santino began collecting his weapons in the morning before park hours. He would gather rocks and knock out disks from concrete boulders inside his enclosure. The study, reported in the journal Current Biology, said he would then wait until around midday before he unleashed a “hailstorm” of rocks on zoo goers.

Lund University Ph.D. student Mathias Osvath, who authored the report, believes such observations convincingly show that our fellow apes do consider the future in a very complex way.

“It implies that they have a highly developed consciousness, including lifelike mental simulations of potential events.”

The report was based on Osvath’s own observations of Santino as well as interviews with three senior caretakers who had followed the chimpanzee’s behavior for 10 years at the zoo in Furuvik.

Osvath told The Associated Press the chimp didn’t attack other chimpanzees. He only went after humans viewing the apes across the moat surrounding the island compound where they were held.

“They most probably have an ‘inner world’ like we have when reviewing past episodes of our lives or thinking of days to come. When wild chimps collect stones or go out to war, they probably plan this in advance. I would guess that they plan much of their everyday behavior,” Osvath said.

However, some experts say that individual differences are big among chimpanzees, so the observation might not mean all chimpanzees are capable of the same planning.

“It could be that he is a genius, only more research will tell. On the other hand our research showed the same in orangutans and bonobos so he is not alone,” said Joseph Call, the author of a 2006 study on orangutans.

Santino had also been observed tapping on concrete boulders in the park to identify weak parts and then knocking out pieces to throw. If select pieces were too big for throwing, he broke it into smaller pieces, before adding them to his arsenal.

“I think that wild chimpanzees might be even better at planning as they probably rely on it for their daily survival,” Osvath said. “The environment in a zoo is far less complex than in a forest. Zoo chimps never have to encounter the dangers in the forest or live through periods of scarce food. Planning would prove its value in ‘real life’ much more than in a zoo.”

Osvath noted that because Santino stayed calm while preparing his weapons but used them when he was extremely agitated proves that the planning behavior was not based on an immediate emotional drive.

Zookeepers said Santino would still be aggressive when barred from collecting his arsenal and decided to castrate him last year. However, officials won’t know if the behavior has ended until this summer when the chimpanzees are kept outdoors between April and October.

“It is normal behavior for alpha males to want to influence their surroundings … It is extremely frustrating for him that there are people out of his reach who are pointing at him and laughing,” Osvath said. “It cannot be good to be so furious all the time.”

Last month, a 200-pound pet chimpanzee once seen in TV commercials attacked a woman and a police officer before being shot and killed.

The chimp’s owner believed it was trying to protect her and attacked her friend because she had changed her appearance.

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