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Santino the stone-throwing chimp isn't the only ape who plans ahead

March 11, 2009 |  2:07 pm

Washoe Santino, a chimpanzee at Sweden's Furuvik Zoo, recently showed researchers that apes -- much like humans -- can plan ahead and execute complicated maneuvers that demonstrate forethought. 

Santino repeatedly gathered rocks and pieces he chipped off concrete boulders in his enclosure before the zoo opened in the morning.  Later in the day, he'd unleash a "hailstorm" of rocks at zoo visitors watching him across the moat surrounding his enclosure.  (Lund University doctoral student Mathias Osvath, who authored a report on Santino's behavior in the journal Current Biology, said the chimp's thrown stones rarely hit anyone because of his poor aim and no humans had been seriously injured in the attacks, which began in 1994.)

Investigating Santino's case, our colleague Karen Kaplan found that his demonstration of forethought is not unique among chimps. Kaplan writes:

Roger Fouts, co-director of the Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute at Central Washington University in Ellensburg, Wash., said Santino's behavior was notable but not altogether different from that of wild chimps observed in Tanzania and the Ivory Coast. Those animals are known to gather tools for future use, such as heavy rocks that are handy for cracking nuts.

At his own institute, he said, a 33-year-old chimp named Tatu uses sign language to ask about "BIRD MEAT" in anticipation of Thanksgiving and "CANDY TREE" before Christmas.

Staffers at the Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute, once home to the famous signing chimp Washoe, maintain a great blog documenting the daily lives of the institute's chimp residents.

A recent post shows Tatu doesn't only think about food around the holidays:

To get a snack after lunch the chimpanzees have to eat a bowl of soup. The soup has beans in it and we want to make sure they are getting enough protein. Tatu asked me for a carrot before eating any soup. I signed, "NEED EAT THAT, YOU KNOW." Tatu picked up the bowl and started eating the soup very slowly. There are four rooms in the Night Enclosure Area (NEA) where the chimpanzees are served their meals. Tatu was in room 4 eating when [Loulis, another resident chimp] called me over to room 2 for a second helping of soup. I was serving Lou his soup when Tatu came over into room 3 and showed me her empty bowl. She looked at me and signed, "CARROT?" I replied, "YES, CARROT." Tatu was clearly pleased with my response.

But Tatu's empty bowl wasn't quite what it seemed: The staffer later discovered that the chimp had in fact poured the soup out on the ground rather than eating it.  Crafty!

Chimps in the wild display evidence of planning as well, according to Kaplan:

Craig Stanford, co-director of the Jane Goodall Research Center at USC, said he had watched Tanzanian chimps collect sticks to fish for termites even when they were far from a termite mound. In his view, Santino's behavior may be as much a sign of boredom as intelligence.

"His whole life is spent in a small enclosure with very few outlets for his creativity," Stanford said.

For those whose travels take them to the neighborhood of central Washington's Cascade mountains, the CHCI offers classes called "Chimposiums" on weekends in March through November.  Ellensburg is about 100 miles east of Seattle.

--Lindsay Barnett

Photo: Washoe was believed to be the first nonhuman to acquire human language.  (She died of natural causes in 2007 at age 42.)  Credit: Associated Press

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