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Can captive orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus abelii) be coaxed into cumulative build-up of techniques?


Lehner, S R; Burkart, J M; van Schaik, C P (2011). Can captive orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus abelii) be coaxed into cumulative build-up of techniques? Journal of Comparative Psychology, 125(4):446-455.

Abstract

While striking cultural variation in behavior from one site to another has been described in chimpanzees and orangutans, cumulative culture might be unique to humans. Captive chimpanzees were recently found to be rather conservative, sticking to the technique they had mastered, even after more effective alternatives were demonstrated. Behavioral flexibility in problem solving, in the sense of acquiring new solutions after having learned another one earlier, is a vital prerequisite for cumulative build-up of
techniques. Here, we experimentally investigate whether captive orangutans show such flexibility, and if so, whether they show techniques that cumulatively build up (ratchet) on previous ones after conditions of the task are changed. We provided nine Sumatran orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus abelii) with two types of transparent tubes partly filled with syrup, along with potential tools such as sticks, twigs, wood wool and paper. In the first phase, the orangutans could reach inside the tubes with their hands (Regular Condition), but in the following phase, tubes had been made too narrow for their hands to fit in (Restricted Condition 1), or in addition the setup lacked their favorite materials (Restricted Condition 2). The orangutans showed high behavioral flexibility, applying nine different techniques under the regular condition in total. Individuals abandoned preferred techniques and switched to different techniques under restricted conditions when this was advantageous. We show for two of these techniques how they cumulatively built up on earlier ones. This suggests that the near-absence of cumulative culture in wild orangutans is not due to a lack of flexibility when existing solutions to tasks are made impossible.

Abstract

While striking cultural variation in behavior from one site to another has been described in chimpanzees and orangutans, cumulative culture might be unique to humans. Captive chimpanzees were recently found to be rather conservative, sticking to the technique they had mastered, even after more effective alternatives were demonstrated. Behavioral flexibility in problem solving, in the sense of acquiring new solutions after having learned another one earlier, is a vital prerequisite for cumulative build-up of
techniques. Here, we experimentally investigate whether captive orangutans show such flexibility, and if so, whether they show techniques that cumulatively build up (ratchet) on previous ones after conditions of the task are changed. We provided nine Sumatran orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus abelii) with two types of transparent tubes partly filled with syrup, along with potential tools such as sticks, twigs, wood wool and paper. In the first phase, the orangutans could reach inside the tubes with their hands (Regular Condition), but in the following phase, tubes had been made too narrow for their hands to fit in (Restricted Condition 1), or in addition the setup lacked their favorite materials (Restricted Condition 2). The orangutans showed high behavioral flexibility, applying nine different techniques under the regular condition in total. Individuals abandoned preferred techniques and switched to different techniques under restricted conditions when this was advantageous. We show for two of these techniques how they cumulatively built up on earlier ones. This suggests that the near-absence of cumulative culture in wild orangutans is not due to a lack of flexibility when existing solutions to tasks are made impossible.

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Additional indexing

Item Type:Journal Article, refereed, original work
Communities & Collections:07 Faculty of Science > Department of Anthropology
Dewey Decimal Classification:300 Social sciences, sociology & anthropology
Language:English
Date:2011
Deposited On:19 Jan 2012 12:47
Last Modified:07 Dec 2017 10:50
Publisher:American Psychological Association
ISSN:0021-9940
Additional Information:This article may not exactly replicate the final version published in the APA journal. It is not the copy of record.
Publisher DOI:https://doi.org/10.1037/a0024413

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