Learning with the great apes
by Liz Renner.
Some fundamental cognitive abilities, such as sensation, perception, motor control, and learning, are widely shared across the animal kingdom. But certain components of human cognition were long thought to be unique to our species, including theory of mind, language, tool design and use, and cultural transmission of behaviors from generation to generation. Recent research with nonhuman primates has shown that several of these abilities are actually shared by our close primate relatives.
Working with my advisor, Dr. Francys Subiaul, at the National Zoo in Washington, DC, I hope to further explore how and under which conditions gorillas and orangutans learn about objects they encounter in their environment, learn to perform certain tasks to receive a reward, and predict the behavior of other individuals.
In addition to conducting research there, I hope to work with the National Zoo in the near future to create an educational program centered on gorillas and orangutans. The more today’s students learn about these endangered apes, the more enthusiastic they will be about working with adults to ensure the success of urgent conservation efforts.