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Understanding the Cognitive Abilities of Great Apes

  • A researcher conducts a public research demonstration with orangutan participants at the Smithsonian's National Zoo's Think Tank
    Researcher Jennifer Botting conducts a public research demonstration with orangutan participants in the Smithsonian's National Zoo's Think Tank exhibit.

With the support of the David Bohnett Foundation, the Smithsonian’s National Zoo is helping address the important question of whether apes can attribute mental states to others.

As the David Bohnett Cognitive Research Fellow at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo, Jennifer Botting is generating new knowledge about the cognitive abilities of great apes and sharing this information with the scientific community and the public.

Botting provides daily public demonstrations of her research in the Smithsonian's National Zoo’s Think Tank exhibit on weekdays at 1:30 p.m. These demos are great way for visitors to meet the amazing orangutans that call the Zoo their home, to learn about the species from a Smithsonian scientist and to gain a deeper understanding and appreciation for great apes. In May 2017, the Zoo posted a Facebook Live video of one of Botting’s research demonstrations. The video has been viewed more than 50,000 times.

Why is this work important?

For many decades, scientists have looked for evidence of mental state attribution in non-human animals, and particularly in non-human primates. Mental state attribution refers to the ability to know that other individuals are capable of perceiving, knowing, feeling and thinking. Despite some innovative experiments and exciting findings, the extent to which orangutans and gorillas, in particular, are capable of attributing mental states to others is still unclear. Botting’s studies will present the Smithsonian's National Zoo’s gorillas and orangutans with a number of different scenarios in which they will need to understand what an experimenter can perceive in order to obtain their goals.*

The objective of Botting’s experiments is to examine whether gorillas and orangutans take into account the visual and auditory perception of a human experimenter during a cooperative task. During the research trials, the animals are observed to see if they change their attention-getting behaviors based on whether or not Botting’s visual or auditory attention is directed at them. By manipulating the cues that signal whether or not she can see the ape, Botting can test whether the apes make more visual gestures when her attention is directed toward them, therefore revealing what they understand about human visual attention.

For example, if they understand that humans perceive things through their eyes, they will make more gestures when Botting’s eyes are uncovered. If they use a behavioral rule that does not require them to understand mental states, they might make gestures when her body is oriented toward them, but not change their behaviors when her eyes are covered.

How is this helping the Smithsonian's National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute save species?

This research deepens the understanding of the mental capacity of these incredible species and could ultimately help improve how they are managed in human care and conserved in the wild. Understanding the nature of these abilities in humans' close relatives will also shed light on the origin and evolution of human cognitive abilities. Botting hopes to publish the results of her findings in the coming year.

We invite you to attend one of the weekly demonstrations and learn more about her work. The Smithsonian’s National Zoo would like to thank the David Bohnett Foundation for its generous support of Botting and this important research.

*A note on ethics and animal welfare: As with studies and training, animals are given the choice to voluntarily participate. If at any time during the research session the animals show signs of disinterest, stress or indicate that they no longer want to separate from the social group, the session ends.