Smithsonian National Zoological Park l Friends of the National Zoo



What is Think Tank?

Think Tank is an indoor exhibit and follows the Zoo building hours schedule. Zoo Hours and Visitor Information

Exhibit Description

Orangutans in the Sky

Before you even enter the Think Tank, you may see orangutans swinging toward it on cables 40 feet above the ground. That's our O-Line! Read all about it and check out the frequently asked questions.

Thinking about Thinking

Think Tank is a place to think about thinking. It combines the appeal of orangutans, macaques, and other charismatic species with an interactive exploration of the question: "What is thinking?" Think Tank is unique in the zoo world in that it is about a biological process thinking, rather than a particular animal species or habitat.

How can scientists determine when animals are actually thinking? Scientists have different opinions about which animal behaviors actually involve thinking. Thinking, as defined in Think Tank, is said to occur if three elements exist: image, intention, and flexibility. For example, this scenario suggests that thinking is occurring:

A person wanting a fresh-baked chocolate chip cookie will have an image of that cookie in his head. With the intention of getting a cookie, he will set out for a bakery. When he gets there, he finds it is closed. Flexibility is shown when he can decide to buy the ingredients, go home, and bake his own cookies. In other words, when Plan A fails, he can switch to Plan B, or even Plan C.

Tools, Language, and Society

To help visitors understand thinking, Think Tank explores three domains of behavior Tools, Language, and Society for evidence of thinking.

In the introductory area of Think Tank's interpretive gallery, visitors are invited to examine their own beliefs about thinking. "Mission Control" presents the parts of the brain and their function. Visitors can also compare brain sizes of different animals, from an 82,000-pound (180,400 kg) finback whale to a 10-ounce (280 g) squirrel.

The next area of the exhibit, "Tools," investigates the definitions of tool use and presents examples of animals that appear to be using tools. It includes a display of hermit crabs that show complex tool-using behavior when choosing a shell, and a termite mound where visitors can practice choosing which tool is most effective for "fishing" like chimpanzees do for termites. This area also looks at human tool use, from early hominids to modern humans.

In Think Tank's orangutan enclosure, visitors can watch the behaviors of the orangutans, who climb and swing over from the Great Ape House on the "O Line" (a series of towers and cables). If orangutans choose to travel to Think Tank, they can participate in research demonstrations and visitor interactives, like the outdoor mister system and the indoor tug o’war. Since the orangutans have the choice of which building to spend time in, either the Great Ape House or Think Tank, it is possible that no orangutans, at certain parts of the day, will be in the building. Visiting the exhibit around designated demonstration times is a great way to be sure animals will be on view. Also, this exhibit warrants multiple visits due to the in-depth presentation on the topic of thinking.

Visitors may view scientific studies in progress by watching the Zoo's researchers. Our orangutans collaborate with our researchers on several projects, including research on memory, planning, tool use, social learning, and culture. Think Tank staff will perform daily demonstrations and lead discussions on cognitive research topics. You can even test your own memory by trying one of the memory-based research tasks, located on computer kiosks inside Think Tank. Will you be able to remember as well as our orangutans?

Does social behavior require thinking? Can animals invent new ways of doing things? These are the two main questions asked in the "Society" section of the exhibit, where the focus is on deception, cooperation, alliance-building, innovation, and conflict between animals. The brown rat exhibit introduces an internationally renowned animal species that is highly social, and, through its successful adaptations provides many examples of “flexibility,” the essence of thinking behavior. In Society, topics such as the deceptive acts of several species, and the examination of whether innovation leads to tradition and culture in social groups, are also explored. Social strategies can also be observed in this section by watching Think Tank's monkeys.

Think Tank is a trail-blazing, thought-provoking, interactive exhibit that gives visitors insight into the "behind-the-scenes" work of a research program on great ape cognition. In creating this unique exhibit, Think Tank developers hope to inform visitors about this exciting field of scientific study, stimulate an interest in scientific careers, and instill a new respect for nature conservation.

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