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National Zoo's Think Tank Exhibit Boasts New Animal and Visitor Enhancements

Visitors to the Think Tank exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo will see new interactive activities relating to orangutans—an ape may spray them with water at the Orangutan Mister or play tug-of-war with them at the Orangutan Pull. These new interactive enhancements give the orangutans an opportunity to make choices and demonstrate their ability to think. These features are part of a renewal project to increase visitor and orangutan encounters in the award-winning exhibition on animal cognition. There are also daily demonstrations and a new video about the Zoo’s orangutan memory research project. When the renewal project is complete in April 2011, Think Tank will include an orangutan-controlled webcam, a memory test for visitors, an interactive termite “fishing” mound and a brown-rat exhibit.

“The new enhancements at Think Tank will provide our visitors with a dynamic interactive and educational exhibit to explore and enjoy,” said Lisa Stevens, curator of primates and pandas at the National Zoo. “My hope is that our visitors, young and old, will walk away educated about a fascinating topic—animal thinking.”

Components of the Think Tank renewal project include:

  • Orangutan Pull: Visitors can participate in a tug-of-war with an orangutan through the wall below the glass enclosure of the indoor exhibit. The rope-pull interactive demonstrates an orangutan’s arm strength, which it uses to travel through the rainforest canopy.
  • Orangutan Mister: A passing visitor will get caught under a mist of water—turned on by an orangutan—in the Wet Zone. The outdoor orangutan exhibit is fitted with two mister shower heads (on the animal side and visitor side). The push valves are operable only by the apes, who will have the control to shower a visitor, themselves or both.
  • O-Line Wayfinding: Newly patterned paver sections have been installed on the Zoo’s main path, Olmsted Walk; they designate an “on the ground” presence of the Zoo’s Orangutan Transit System, the O-Line, which consists of towers, linked by vine-like cables, which connect the Great Ape House and Think Tank. The O-Line gives the orangutans freedom of movement, an expanded living area and choice of location.
  • Orangutan Webcam: Orangutans will get a window into the activities taking place at Think Tank and the Great Ape House via an ape-controlled webcam.
  • Orangutan Memory Research Video: A new video, Learning from a Memory Test, summarizes the ongoing research of our Think Tank orangutans by Karyl Swartz, from the Great Ape Trust of Iowa, and Erin Stromberg, National Zoo keeper. The study focuses on how primates organize memories.
  • Visitor Memory Test: How does a human’s memory compare to an orangutan’s? This first-of-its-kind memory interactive will be based on cognition work by Swartz. Visitors test their ability to freely recall photographs from a list seen previously and compare their scores to those of the Zoo’s orangutans.
  • Termite Mound Renovation: Visitors will get an opportunity to fish for termites like a chimpanzee by poking a variety of flexible tools into a termite mound.
  • Brown Rat Exhibit (RATS!): These intelligent animals display flexibility, which is the most important aspect of the definition of thinking presented in Think Tank. Rats have been used extensively in laboratory research studies on learning theory, which will be demonstrated through their different mazes. The exhibit will be built with a tube pathway so the rats can move between different enclosures.

The enhancements to Think Tank were made possible by a generous donation from the Hattie M. Strong Foundation in honor of Hank Strong. In recognition of this generosity, the classroom and other enhancement areas will be named “The Hank Strong Enrichment Center.”

Think Tank, the place to think about thinking, opened in 1995 as a 15,000-square-foot permanent exhibition that combines the appeal of orangutans, macaques and other charismatic species with an interactive exploration of the question: “What is thinking?” Visitors are introduced to the concept of animal thinking by exploring three factors necessary to establish the existence of thought: image, intention and flexibility. As a concept-based exhibit, Think Tank was designed to showcase a prominent and vibrant research program. At Think Tank, staff and interpretive volunteers perform daily demonstrations and lead discussions on research in cognitive science, highlighting current and ongoing National Zoo studies at 11 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. At the Great Ape House, visitors can meet a great ape keeper to learn about the fascinating world of apes at 11:30 a.m. daily. Visitors can also see the orangutans traveling on the O-Line on warm-weather days from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.