Smithsonian National Zoological Park l Friends of the National Zoo



Tool Use and Planning

Bess PriceBess Price, Postdoctoral Research Fellow

One of the hallmarks of human cognition is the ability to make and use tools. Almost every aspect of our lives involves some sort of tool use, and we even plan ahead and bring tools with us for future events. We might bring an umbrella with us on a sunny morning because the weather forecast said it would rain later in the day.

Our tool use is also remarkably complex. We use tools to make other tools, and our tools often involve multiple inter-related parts. This complexity is reliant on several processes, but scientific research suggests that one is particularly important: the ability to learn new techniques from others.

For example, imagine having no information about a computer—could you invent one yourself from scratch? Probably not. Humans are very reliant on information we can learn from others about tools. This ability has allowed us to develop increasingly complex tools over time, even tools that no single individual could invent on his or her own.

Many other animals use tools, but we are still uncertain about which learning processes are shared across species, and which ones are unique. My research involves testing two aspects of tool use in other animals: the ability to plan ahead for future events and the ability to learn new techniques by watching others. There is still disagreement in the scientific community over whether or not any nonhuman animal has the ability to plan ahead for a future event. In collaboration with Erin Stromberg, a great ape keeper, I will be testing whether or not orangutans can select and transport the correct tool required for an upcoming task.

My work will also assess how apes learn to solve new tool problems. Do they rely primarily on their own problem-solving abilities, or do they seek information from others? To test this, I present orangutans and gorillas with a variety of different problems that must be solved by using or constructing a tool. The apes are given the option of watching another ape solve the problem on a video screen. If they choose to watch the video, and if they match the particular techniques they see, they are likely to be relying on social information. Taken together these projects will help us understand the processes underlying tool use in other species. This will help us understand the behaviors we see in the wild animals, and also shed light on the evolution of complex tool use.