Chimp carefully planned stone-throwing attacks on zoo visitors

This is really lovely: A researcher at Lund University has a new paper reporting on a chimpanzee in a zoo “calmly collecting stones and fashioning concrete discs that he would later use to hurl at zoo visitors.”

Other than the gorgeously anti-Madagascar-like narrative aspects of this story, it’s also an important finding: This is apparently some of the first straightforward evidence that animals other than humans can make “spontaneous plans for future events”. Normally when we notice that chimps are doing something complicated — like fashioning a weapon — it’s really hard to parse what’s motivating their actions: Are they thinking a few steps ahead? Or are they simply reacting to their immediate environment — i.e. they’re hunting right now, and so they need a tool?

In this case, the scientist observed the chimp for a full decade and noticed that he would gather rocks or manufacture “concrete disks” when he was calm — so he can’t have been motivated by any immediate, annoyed feelings towards the zoo vistors. It appeared that he was anticipating a period in the future when he would be pissed off at people staring at him, and, well, you’d need a couple of good rocks to throw at those idiots, wouldn’t you? As a press release reports:

“These observations convincingly show that our fellow apes do consider the future in a very complex way,” said Mathias Osvath of Lund University. “It implies that they have a highly developed consciousness, including life-like mental simulations of potential events. They most probably have an ‘inner world’ like we have when reviewing past episodes of our lives or thinking of days to come. When wild chimps collect stones or go out to war, they probably plan this in advance. I would guess that they plan much of their everyday behavior.”

The paper — with the tinder-dry understated title “Spontaneous planning for future stone throwing by a male chimpanzee” — is online here, but, alas, it’s behind a paywall and the researcher hasn’t made it public on his own site.

(The chimp above is not the actual chimp mentioned in the study; it’s a pic from the CC-licensed Flickr stream of =Thomas=!)

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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