A study in chimp behaviour has yielded some fascinating results regarding their problem solving abilities. In Aesop’s ancient fable, a crow uses stones to raise the water level in a pitcher in order to have a drink. The researchers have created an experiment for chimps to take part in that promotes the same use of initiative.
The animals were presented with a vertical glass tube, secured to the cage and unbreakable. At the base of the tube was a peanut floating in a small amount of water. Given access to a water dispenser the chimps were able to spit the water into the tube thus raising the level and retrieving the peanut.
One of the chimps resorted to rather desperate measures in order to gain the peanut, urinating into the tube.
“He was spitting water into the tube and then got frustrated.” Explains head researcher Daniel Hanus, “So he started peeing and the he realised: ‘Wait a minute, if I move in that direction, that fills up the tube.” The prospect of a urine soaked peanut was not a problem to the successful chimp who promptly ate it.
Dr Hanus explains how the experiment has highlighted the problem solving skills of the chimps:
“You cannot explain it by trial-and-error learning. They weren’t just spitting water around the room and some fell in by accident. Instead, they were standing in front of the problem, trying to work out the solution – at first by trying to use their fingers, or trying to break it.”
“But some, then went to the drinker and got the mouthful of water and came back and spat directly into the tube, and a few did it enough times to get the peanut…I think it is quite impressive, I call it insightful behaviour.”