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Dedicated rock-throwing chimp proves longterm planning

Biologists have suspected for a long time that animals other than humans are capable of making plans for future events, but it has proven difficult to show conclusively. However, a new study in Current Biology claims the first unambiguous evidence of an animal premeditating. Mathias Osvath of Lund University in Sweden has spent a decade observing a male chimpanzee in a zoo collecting stones, making them into concrete discs, and then throwing them at zoo visitors.

“These observations convincingly show that our fellow apes do consider the future in a very complex way,” said Osvath. “It implies that they have a highly developed consciousness, including life-like mental simulations of potential events. They most probably have an ‘inner world’ like we have when reviewing past episodes of our lives or thinking of days to come. When wild chimps collect stones or go out to war, they probably plan this in advance. I would guess that they plan much of their everyday behavior.”

Wild female chimp in Uganda with large growth on her chin. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.

The difference in Osvath’s data and other primatologists’ data is the undeniable proof of future planning. The chimp was calm when gathering the stones and making the disks, but clearly agitated when throwing them at visitors at a later time. Therefore Osvath says the gathering and making of the weapons were not based on a “current drive state”.

Osvath hypothesizes that the evidence from the zoo is probably even more prevalent in the wild. “I think that wild chimpanzees might be even better at planning as they probably rely on it for their daily survival,” Osvath said. “The environment in a zoo is far less complex than in a forest. Zoo chimps never have to encounter the dangers in the forest or live through periods of scarce food. Planning would prove its value in ‘real life’ much more than in a zoo.”

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