The Orangutan Learning Tree Project
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Scientists have long wondered about the true nature of great ape cognition, and a groundbreaking project at Zoo Atlanta provides researchers and guests with an ongoing opportunity to observe the skills of some of the animal kingdom’s most complex problem solvers.
Opened in 2007 through partnership with the Center for Behavioral Neuroscience (CBN) and IBM, the Orangutan Learning Tree encourages the apes to participate in regular interactions with an on-exhibit computer, engaging in a variety of programs that allow scientists to collect data on their cognitive abilities. Our goal is to learn more about the orangutan social cognition—in other words, their understanding of their social environment. For example, what features do they use to recognize individuals (faces? voices? both?)? Do they recognize group versus non group members? We conduct this research in collaboration with Dr. Robert Hampton and the Laboratory for Comparative Primate Cognition at Emory University. Dr. Hampton’s lab conducts similar work with other species of primates, and we hope to eventually compare performance across species to look for common elements of primate cognition.
Currently, the orangutans are working on a categorization program where they are learning to categorize objects. You can try the same program the orangutans are doing here.
Visitors to the Zoo can observe the orangutans working and hear more about the research program during scheduled demonstrations. Check your Zoo map during your next visit to find out when you can see the project in action, or stop by the Orangutans of Ketambe habitats to watch an informative video illustrating the Learning Tree’s fascinating capabilities.
This cutting-edge research and learning experience were made possible by resources and contributions from CBN, the Laboratory for Comparative Primate Cognition, the IBM Corporation, an anonymous donor and Touch International. A state-of-the-art educational kiosk provided by IBM gives visitors basic information about each of the orangutans in Zoo Atlanta’s collection, as well as information about the challenges the species faces in the wild.