Tag Archives: chimp research

Chimps are rational, not conformist – study shows

The fact that chimpanzees are extremely intelligent should no longer surprise anyone. Most people also know that they have their own social cues and are very sensitive to them, but even so, they usually refuse to conform to what the majority of group members are doing, preferring to stick with their personal preferences. However, now, a new study has shown that they do change their strategy when they can obtain greater rewards.

© Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics

Chimps are curious by nature, showing a rich palette of interests, both intellectually and socially. But they are also rather hesitant to abandon their personal preferences, even when it becomes ineffective; many researchers suggested that they are slaves to routine, doing the same things over and over again almost mindlessly, regardless of the results. But Edwin van Leeuwen from the Max Planck Institutes for Psycholinguistics and Evolutionary Anthropology conducted a series of experiments in Germany and Zambia to see under what circumstances the chimps are willing to change their behaviors.

The researchers studied 16 captive chimpanzees at the Wolfgang Kohler Primate Research Center in Germany (Leipzig) and 12 semi-wild chimpanzees at the Chimfunshi Wildlife Orphanage Trust, a sanctuary that houses more than a hundred chimpanzees under nearly natural conditions in the north-western part of Zambia. The chimps were trained to operate two different vending machines. A minority of the group was made familiar with one machine and the majority of group members with the other machine. Basically, wooden balls were thrown into their living space. The chimps could insert the ball in the vending machines and they got a nut in exchange.

Then, the team wanted to see if the chimpanzees in the minority group would change their behaviour toward using the vending machine that the majority used. The benefits the two machines provided were identical, so they wanted to see if the minority would cave to the social majority pressure; they didn’t.

Peanuts over popularity

But in the second experiment, they changed the way the vending machines worked – so the one that the minority used now gave 5 nuts instead of one. Over time, most of the chimps switched to using the minority one, showing that they recognized the advantage and showed rationality, not conformism.

“Where chimpanzees do not readily change their behaviour under majority influences, they do change their behaviour when they can maximise their payoffs,” Van Leeuwen says. “We conclude that chimpanzees may prefer persevering in successful and familiar strategies over adopting the equally effective strategy of the majority, but that chimpanzees find sufficient incentive in changing their behaviour when they can obtain higher rewards somewhere else.” “So, it’s peanuts over popularity” he jokingly adds.

Via Max Planck Institutes for Psycholinguistics and Evolutionary Anthropology.

Brent is 37 years old and has lived at Chimp Haven in Keithville, La., since 2006. Brent paints with his tongue.(Photo: Humane Society of the United States)

Abstract art painted by chimps to be auctioned. Raises awareness on lab cruelty

The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), recently initiated a bold and creative project in which they enlisted six member organizations of the North American Primate Sanctuary Alliance. HSUS asked the organizations if they would each submit a piece of art made by chimps belonging to their respective sanctuaries. In the end, some pretty creative and expressive pieces of art were submitted. The winning piece was authored by the most eccentric of the chimp artists, being painted through a technique using the tongue only.

Brent's award-winning painting.(Photo: Humane Society of the United States)

Brent’s award-winning painting.(Photo: Humane Society of the United States)

The winning entries were chosen only last week, after more than 27,000 people voted their favorites online, and topping the list was the art made by Brent, a 36-year-old chimp who paints only with his tongue. His sanctuary, Chimp Haven of Louisiana, won a grant of $10,000 from The HSUS. Jane Goodall, famed primatologist and U.N. Messenger of Peace, was also part of the judging panel.

“All of the art was beautiful and unique, just like chimpanzees!” Goodall said. “It was difficult to choose. It’s so important that the public support all of these sanctuaries in their mission to provide exceptional care to chimpanzees, and other primates, who have suffered through so much.”

Cheetah, of Save the Chimps in Florida,  came in at second with his meticulous work. His entry was also Goodall’s favorite out the bunch. The chimp’s sanctuary was awarded $10,000.Ripley of the Center for Great Apes in Florida won third prize, for a $2,500 grant, followed by paintings by Jamie of Chimpanzee Sanctuary Northwest, Jenny of Primate Rescue Center, and Patti of Chimps, Inc., convey the unique style of each chimpanzee.

Second prize entry made by Cheetah, who lived alone in a lab for 13 years and endured more than 400 biopsies before being rescued by Save the Chimps. (c) Save the Chimps

Second prize entry made by Cheetah, who lived alone in a lab for 13 years and endured more than 400 biopsies before being rescued by Save the Chimps. (c) Save the Chimps

There’s more to the project than just showcasing cute and amazing chimpanzee art or rewarding the sanctuaries that care for them. The project seeks to raise awareness on the dire conditions these chimps were forced to  during their past ‘careers’ as research chimps or in the entertainment industry.  Brent, Cheetah, Jenny and Jamie were all used in biomedical research. Cheetah had it the worst of all – 19 years of medical research and in that time had more 400 liver biopsies, according to his sanctuary, Save the Chimps in Fort Pierce, Fla., which is home to 261 chimpanzees.

Third prize entry by Ripley. Like many chimpanzees used as actors, Ripley was eventually dumped in a roadside zoo. There, he witnessed the shooting death of his brother and two other chimp companions after human error resulted in the chimpanzees’ escape. Ripley found sanctuary at Center for Great Apes and impresses his caretakers with his resilience and forgiveness.

Third prize entry by Ripley. Like many chimpanzees used as actors, Ripley was eventually dumped in a roadside zoo. There, he witnessed the shooting death of his brother and two other chimp companions after human error resulted in the chimpanzees’ escape. Ripley found sanctuary at Center for Great Apes and impresses his caretakers with his resilience and forgiveness.

Recent advances in medicine, like in-lab culturing of organs from adult stem cells and computer models have significantly reduced the number of research on chimps – ideal animal models since they share 98.5% of their DNA with humans. Still, there are many yet employed in research. In all good faith, most scientists appreciate, while admitting research made on them is cruel, that the chimps are still indispensable to research of treatments that could save thousands if not in some cases millions of lives.

The National Institutes of Health is set to retire more than 300 chimpanzees soon, while the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has recently proposed the listing of chimps as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. If the proposal passes, then chimps would be out of the labs for the good.

As for the artworks, these will be auctioned off and the proceeds will benefit the North American Primate Sanctuary Alliance .

 “We cannot thank these sanctuaries enough for providing their chimpanzee residents with such peaceful and enriching lives. They deserve the public’s support for the amazing work they are doing and will continue to do as hundreds more chimpanzees make their way to retirement after decades in laboratories,” said Kathleen Conlee, vice president of animal research issues at the HSUS.

You can view all of the entries here.

Image Credit: Zoological Society of London

Chimps enjoy solving puzzles just for the thrill of it

Image Credit: Zoological Society of London

Image Credit: Zoological Society of London

Earlier today I wrote about some recent findings that suggest humans have evolved unique brain structures from other primates. Don’t be fooled however in thinking many of the activities we undertake every day are solely found in human culture. Dolphins communicate with each other much like humans do and besides tool use, chimps know that cooperation is key. The latest example of behavior that’s thought to be exclusive to humans, but encountered in other animals as well is puzzle solving.

We know that there a lot of animals that like to play, especially the young, however puzzle solving just for the thrill of it is typically thought to be an exclusive human trait. A recent experiment conduct by biologists Zoological Society of London (ZSL) showed, however, that chimps enjoy solving puzzles just for the gratification of having completed a challenge, without any other rewards.

The researchers tasked two female chimps and four males to place sticks into holes in simple hardware store plumbing pipes to change the direction of either red dice or Brazil nuts until they fell out into a container. With the dice, the goal was to move them into an exit chamber, but with the nuts, that chamber had been removed so they would fall out of the maze and become a tasty snack to reward the chimps for their work. The researchers even increased the challenge for the chimps by adding additional pipes and making the pipes opaque so the chimpanzees could not see what was inside.

“We noticed that the chimps were keen to complete the puzzle regardless of whether or not they received a food reward,” Fay Clark, a researcher with the Zoological Society, said Saturday in a statement. “This strongly suggests they get similar feelings of satisfaction to humans who often complete brain games for a feel-good reward.”

In the wild, chimps can be often see using tools like wooden sticks peering through various orifices in search of insects and other food. It seems, however, that they also enjoy the challenge of fulfilling a cognitive task just like a human.

“The chimps took part in the cognitive challenge as part of their normal daily routine and doing the brain teaser was completely voluntary,” they said. “This study suggests that like humans, chimpanzees are motivated to solve a puzzle when there is no food reward. They do so for the sake of the challenge itself. It also suggests that chimpanzee cognition can be measured on social groups under more naturalistic conditions.”

The findings were reported in the  American Journal of Primatology. 

Medical research on chimps will no longer be performed

Concluding a debate which lasted for over 7 months, the US Institute of Medicine has released a report that marks a turning point for chimpanzees, our closest relative, in terms of medical research. The panel laid out some stringent rules against all current and future chimp research, installing some dramatic penalties to those who disobey.

This result comes mostly as a result of us understanding that, among others, chimps are capable of so many feelings and thoughts, including grief, happiness, empathy, and they have a basic sense or morality; as a result, subjecting them to any kind of disease, pain or psychological trauma can be qualified unethical by all human standards. It’s a fine line to draw in the sand, and in my opinion, we should have drawn it way before chimps, but it’s a good start nonetheless.

At the same time, from a more cynical yet just as true point of view, this measure was adopted because there simply isn’t as much use for research on chimps than there was before. Researchers are now doing a lot of cell research inside Petri dishes, working on stem cells and so on.

However, they did leave a backdoor open, stipulating that chimps can be used for research when there isn’t a similar model available, and when not doing the research would cause a significant delay or stoppage in important research.

Via 80 beats