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Sino Biological
Sino Biological

Three syllables, sounds like "cabana"

Behavioral research has provided another insight into the mental workings of our fellow apes: linkurl:orangutans can play charades;http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/6926703.stm . This finding enriches our concept of primate communication, a phenomenon most likely important in the transmission of customs and the eventual establishment of cultures among our primate cousins. I wrote about linkurl:chimp culture;http://www.the-scientist.com/2007/8/1/28/1/ (and orangutan customs) in our August issu

By | August 2, 2007

Behavioral research has provided another insight into the mental workings of our fellow apes: linkurl:orangutans can play charades;http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/6926703.stm . This finding enriches our concept of primate communication, a phenomenon most likely important in the transmission of customs and the eventual establishment of cultures among our primate cousins. I wrote about linkurl:chimp culture;http://www.the-scientist.com/2007/8/1/28/1/ (and orangutan customs) in our August issue. While it doesn't appear that orangutans can mime linkurl:__Gone with the Wind__;http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0031381/ by flailing their shaggy orange arms, they do seem to alter gestural cues to speed the attainment of goals, much like players of the old-timey parlor game trying to extract accurate guesses from team members. A human gesticulator playing charades might repeat and intensify a gesture when her team is close to guessing the correct answer or may abandon a particular gesture when her team is heading down the wrong track. Orangutans, studied by psychologist linkurl:Richard Byrne;http://psy.st-andrews.ac.uk/people/lect/rwb.shtml and his graduate student Erica Cartmill at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, also subtly changed their communication strategy when trying to get a human experimenter to deliver a food reward. Cartmill and Byrne conducted the linkurl:study;http://www.current-biology.com/content/article/abstract?uid=PIIS0960982207016405 , published online today in Current Biology, on six adult female orangutans at two UK zoos, and suggested that the behavioral strategies they recorded resembled that of charades players. Cartmill videotaped the apes as they motioned to human experimenters who were seated on the other side of the animals' cages and had access to food items that the orangutans could not reach by themselves. The apes clapped, swayed, shook, raspberried, or pointed for 30 seconds to try and get the human to do their bidding. After this 30 second period, the experimenter offered the orangutans a treat; either a desirable food such as a banana or a piece of whole-grain bread, an undesirable food such as celery or leeks, or only half of one of the tastier treats. Each of the orangutans was subjected to each of these three outcomes. The researchers found that when apes received the tasty morsel they desired, they tended to cease gesticulating or vocalizing altogether, while when orangutans were given half of their preferred treat, they tended to repeat gestures that were successful, emphasizing them even more. When researchers gave the orangutans leeks or celery, however, they typically abandoned the gestures that netted them the yuckier food stuff, opting for a different strategy. Researchers have recorded a linkurl:suite of behaviors;http://www.the-scientist.com/2007/8/1/32/1/ in wild orangutans and wild chimps that seem to be shared customs. Groups of wild orangutans use tools to extract seeds from tough fruits and fashion leaf gloves to handle spiky branches, among other curious behaviors. Chimps have an even more impressive behavioral repertoire, with different groups of wild chimps performing similar tasks, like cracking open nuts using heavy objects, in slightly different ways. Sensing whether an observer of your behavior is understanding or misunderstanding your intentions and altering the behavior accordingly is important in establishing shared meaning. The establishment of shared meaning is in turn important in transmitting behaviors between individuals. If an adult orangutan is using a twig to dig out the well-guarded seeds of a Neesia fruit while her youngster looks on, it would behoove her to use the most efficient communication method to convey the meaning of the task at hand. If she can communicate effectively, the behavior could become widespread and ingrained within her social group, and we might call it a custom that the group shares. If a group accumulates enough of these behavioral customs, and these customs differ from group to group of the same species, one might call a specific set of customs a culture. Humans, of course, have a wide array of customs and cultures. Making the claim that non-human apes posses this same capacity for culture, however, is bound to ruffle a few feathers. Read about differing points of view on chimp culture about what science is learning from their behavior and the behavior of linkurl:other non-human animals;http://www.the-scientist.com/2007/8/1/34/1/ in linkurl:my story;http://www.the-scientist.com/2007/8/1/28/1/ on the website. Do you think that chimps or other animals have culture? Give us your opinion in a comment.
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