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Orangutans hook up tool-based solutions quicker than human kids © Getty Images

Orangutans hook up tool-based solutions quicker than human kids

Published: 20th December, 2018 at 04:00
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Orangutans: smarter than seven-year-old children.

Maybe we should want to be like them! Orangutans may be more innovative than human children, a new study at Germany’s Leipzig Zoo has found. An international team of biologists and psychologists researching tool-making in orangutans have evidence that the great apes can solve a problem faster than children younger than eight. The great apes aren’t just faster at coming up with the solution, though – they’re also able to do it independently.


“We confronted the orangutans with a vertical tube containing a reward basket with a handle and a straight piece of wire. A second task involved a horizontal tube containing a reward at its centre and a piece of wire bent at 90°,” said cognitive biologist Isabelle Laumer, who led the study. “Retrieving the reward from the vertical tube required the orangutans to bend a hook into the wire to fish the basket out. The horizontal tube in the second task required them to straighten the bent piece of wire and push the food out of the tube.”

Meet Tilda: the orangutan that's learnt to mimic human speech © Getty Images

Several orangutans mastered both problems, with two doing so in a matter of minutes. The human children, however, weren’t so successful. Three- to five-year-old children rarely succeed in the tasks, and less than half of seven-year-olds tested were able to figure them out. It was only the eight-year-olds that were consistently able to create the required tools.

It’s not all bad news for the human race, though. Children in all tested age groups succeeded when shown how to make and use the necessary tools, which suggests they can comprehend what tools are required and how to make and use them, but that they face some sort of cognitive obstacle in innovating them.

“Complex problem solving has been associated with certain areas of the medial prefrontal cortex, which mature later in human children,” said Laumer. “This, and children’s strong reliance on social learning, might explain their success at a later age.”

This is an extract from issue 330 of BBC Focus magazine.

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Jason Goodyer
Jason GoodyerCommissioning editor, BBC Science Focus

Jason is the commissioning editor for BBC Science Focus. He holds an MSc in physics and was named Section Editor of the Year by the British Society of Magazine Editors in 2019. He has been reporting on science and technology for more than a decade. During this time, he's walked the tunnels of the Large Hadron Collider, watched Stephen Hawking deliver his Reith Lecture on Black Holes and reported on everything from simulation universes to dancing cockatoos. He looks after the magazine’s and website’s news sections and makes regular appearances on the Instant Genius Podcast.


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