Wild chimps plan their commute

July 2019—Scientists are finally proving what many animal lovers knew: animals are a lot smarter than what we give them credit for.

Our dogs know what time it is without a watch…time for dinner, time for a walk. I have marveled at their mental maps. Our last dog would see a squirrel out the front window, run to the back of the house to go out the dog door and then run back to the spot where the squirrel had been.

Researchers have been plumbing the depths of consciousness of other animals, finding that mice, when faced with an intersection in a maze, project themselves into the future to decide which way to go. Dolphins can consider how confident they are in their knowledge. After being trained to go toward a higher pitched sound, Natua rushed toward it when the tones are far apart, but if the tones were too close, she’d press the Opt Out paddle, asking for a new one rather than be wrong, just like we do with an obscure captcha. Chimps infer, after learning there’s a apple under one cup and a banana under another, to reach for the banana if the handler is eating an apple. In the wild, they even plan their commute to avoid traffic at their favorite breakfast stop.

Episodic memory must be at work for the wild chimpanzees that forage among the fruit-bearing trees of Taï National Park, in Ivory Coast. The Dutch primatologist Karline Janmaat has described how the chimps build their night nests en route to such trees and get up before dawn, something they normally hate to do because of the danger of meeting a leopard. Despite their deep-seated fear, the apes would set out on a long trek to a specific fig tree where they had recently eaten. Their goal was to beat the early fig rush by other animals, from squirrels to hornbills. Remarkably, the chimps would get up earlier for trees far from their nests than for those nearby, arriving at about the same time at both. This suggests calculation of travel time based on distance. All this makes Janmaat believe that Taï chimpanzees actively recall previous experiences in order to plan for a plentiful breakfast.

We often refer to humans as separate from animals, but we are not. All life deserves our respect and protection.


If you’re curious to learn more, these examples come from a new book called Mama’s Last Hug.