The cognitive research conducted at the National Zoo occupies a unique niche within the Smithsonian Institution as well as within the broader museum and zoological communities.

Based on a Darwinian perspective, this research focuses on identifying the origins of complex mental abilities, as well as describing the range of cognitive skills that exist in non-human species. All research is hypothesis driven and peer reviewed pre- and post-data collection. The results inform the scientific community that is engaged in understanding non-human mental processes.

Three equally important factors characterize all of the cognitive studies that are conducted within NZP.

  • First, the cognitive abilities of the species that are studied are virtually unrepresented in the literature. The majority of the cognitive research currently being conducted at NZP is unique, and is best described as pure science, rather than applied science.
  • Second, the staff of the NZP recognizes a strong ethical commitment to providing the best mental as well as physical environments for the species under our care. Cognitive research is a very effective means of enriching the mental lives of the individuals that serve as research subjects. Additionally, all NZP based cognitive research utilizes only positive reinforcement, and participation is totally voluntary for every subject in each study.
  • Third, all data collection is carried out in full view of visitors and includes an educational component designed specifically to engage the public. The methods that are used to study behavior and cognition are given special emphasis. We firmly believe that this educational blend inspires an interest in biology, as well as an increased desire for conservation and respect for other species. Therefore, NZP's cognitive research is adding to neglected areas of the scientific literature, providing a challenging and enriching mental environment for the individuals that are being studied, and inspiring our visitors to greater appreciation and respect for other species.

Overall, this branch of science has emerged as the academic intersection between biology, psychology, and neuroscience. Our understanding of the cognitive skills of other species is forcing a paradigm shift in our definition of what is uniquely human. Complex mental abilities are clearly not restricted to the human species, however a firm understanding of the range of abilities that are present in non-humans is only beginning to be understood.