Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Orangutans Play With iPads

Source: kotaku.com.au 
Orangutans, it turns out, love the iPad and its games just as much as some humans do.

A budding program at the Milwaukee County Zoo is working to place iPads into the giant, gentle palms of their orangutans. Two of the zoo's orangutans already look forward to weekly sessions with an iPad. They even have favorite apps, shows and games, but they haven't yet been given free rein with the Apple device because keepers worry they might get frustrated and simply snap one in half.

"One of the biggest hurdles we face is that an orangutan can snap an iPad like you or I could rip cardboard," said Richard Zimmerman, executive director of Orangutan Outreach, which hopes to extend Milwaukee's iPad enrichment program to zoos around the country. "Even the little guys like Mahal are incredibly strong. A big male could take it apart in about five seconds."

Before extending the program, allowing the orangutan's to have personal iPads, Zimmerman and his group needs to find an orangutan-proof case. But the program is still making strides in its infancy in Milwaukee.

It started as an April Fool's joke, Scott Engel, the iPad Enrichment Coordinator at the zoo, tells me.

"A friend of a friend who is a gorilla keeper at the zoo was half-joking about getting an iPad to use with gorillas after seeing a story in the UK Sun," he said.

While the Sun's story was an April Fool's Day joke, Engel thought, 'Why not?' So he contacted Milwaukee County Zoo to float the idea of using his old iPad to work with orangutans. Now Engel spends 20 minutes three-to-four days a week working with MJ and Mahal.

Engel started by showing the two the device through the glass where visitors usually stand. The first thing he did was turn on his iPad 2's camera and let the two use the device as a sort of mirror.

"It was amazing to see how they welcomed this strange device into their area," he said.

Once they were used to the iPad, the keepers started using the device in a back area where the orangutans could reach through a cage door and touch it. Last week, the two had their first chance to go completely hands and feet on with the device, though it still isn't allows in the enclosure with them.

The orangutans both have their favorite apps, often spending quite a bit of time finger-painting with DrawFree, watching television shows and even playing games. They've tried iFishPond,Flick Kick Football and seem to really love the interactive book The Fantastic Flying Books of Morris Lessmore.

"I'll show [Morris Lessmore] to them through the glass and they love the combination of movement, sound, and color," Engel said. "They will sit for about 20 minutes, listening to the story . In fact, MJ and I finished the book in one session."

The orangutans also seem particularly enchanted with videos.

"We'll show the orangutans videos of themselves, videos of wild orangutans, and other animals that reside at the zoo," Engel said. "This has been very successful and really seems to hold their interest. In fact I think orangutan MJ has a crush on David Attenborough. Whenever he comes on to narrate a scene, her eyes light up and she just stares."

The notion of enrichment at zoos is incredibly important, especially with orangutans which are highly intelligent creatures that require mental stimulation to keep from growing bored or depressed, Zimmerman said.

"Orangutans are very tactile and their natural curiosity is perfect for a device like an iPad," he said. "They are open to all types of enrichment and we think that the touchscreen 'games' will be really good for them— especially during the winter months in northern climates when they spend long periods of time indoors. Orangutans love painting with their fingers as well as brushes, and they seem to take quickly to using their fingers to paint on the touchscreen. We have a lot of different ideas we want to try with them and a lot of interest in the zoo community around the country."

Zimmerman hopes to extend the iPad program to Zoo Atlanta next, where they already have touchscreens built into an "enrichment tree" in the orangutan enclosure. Keepers there are ready to kick off the program, he said. Zoos in Toronto, Phoenix, Honolulu, Memphis and Florida are also on board with the idea.

"As long as the orangutans are the decision-makers, the enrichment can be great for them," Zimmerman said. "If the iPad games can help alleviate any boredom they might otherwise feel, we are all for it! And if zoo visitors can see this in practice and then go home with a better appreciation for the orangutans as sentient, intelligent beings who need to be protected in the wild, then everybody wins!"

Once the program is more established, and once the have a solution for protecting iPads from the incredible strength of an orangutan, Zimmerman hopes to kick off a second phase of the program.

"One of our goals is to be able to have the orangutans interact and communicate amongst themselves... essentially being able to go online and see who else is online... and contacting them to be able to 'play'," he said. "We've been calling it 'Primate Playdate'."

And the hope isn't just that orangutans will go online to play video games with each other, from zoo to zoo, Zimmerman thinks it's possible that zoo visitors could download the same apps and play with and against the primates with their own iPhones and iPads.

"Play is a huge component of this type of enrichment and I've found that a simple app like the camera app on the iPad is wonderful," Engel said. "The awesome thing is that when I arrive at the orangutan area, Mj and Mahal come over to see me and they seem to look forward to our enrichment sessions. The super amazing thing about the whole experience is that they don't get any reward for this - no food or treats, they just get to play. They chose to greet me and let me hang out with them. That is the best thing about it. They get to decide something. I'm just along for the ride."Be sure to click through the gallery for more images and video of the orangutans playing with their iPads for the first time. Don't forget to click on the bottom right expand button to see them full size.

Saturday, 13 August 2011

Evolution of the Evolutionarily Minded - Does evolutionary psychology need a rethink?

Source: Science Daily

In the century and a half since Charles Darwin's publication of The Origin of Species, evolutionary theory has become the bedrock of modern biology, yet its application to the understanding of the human mind remains controversial. For the past 30 years, evolutionary interpretation of human cognition has been dominated by the field of evolutionary psychology. One view of this field is that human minds are composed of a list of dedicated programmes, each fashioned by natural selection to solve specific problems faced by our Stone Age ancestors, with all humans possessing the same universal architecture irrespective of geography or upbringing. However, this characterization of the human mind has been subject to criticism, in particular that some interpretations were so speculative they amounted to 'evolutionary stories.'

In an article published July 19 in the online, open access journal PLoS Biology, a team of biologists, psychologists and philosophers from the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands, the University of Cincinnati in America, and the University of St Andrews in Scotland, suggest a new framework for the evolutionary analysis of the mind that draws on recent work from a variety of related subjects.

Professor Johan Bolhuis and colleagues describe how the field of evolutionary psychology had been dominated by a set of widely held assumptions -- e.g., that human behavior is unlikely to be adaptive in modern environments, that human cognition is task-specific, and that there is a universal human nature. However, new findings and approaches from genetics, neuroscience and evolutionary biology now question these assumptions. For example, many human genes have been subject to recent selection in the past few thousand years, which means that humans cannot accurately be portrayed as being adapted only to a Stone Age environment. Experimental and theoretical findings also suggest that humans play an active, constructive role in co-directing their own development and evolution. How humans think and behave varies from individual to individual and place to place. Moreover, experimental evidence suggests that human minds frequently utilize very general learning rules rather than a more modular account of cognition.

Senior author Professor Kevin Laland, former president of the European Human Behaviour and Evolution Association, states: "The current evolutionary psychology paradigm made sense in the 1980s, when modularity of mind was all the rage and everyone thought that evolution was slow. However, with the benefit of hindsight we can see that these assumptions were questionable, and [it] is now clear that the field needs a broader, theoretical framework. Recent developments in evolutionary & developmental biology and cognitive science provide some very exciting new avenues for research. We enter a new phase in the discipline."

Journal Reference:

  1. Johan J. Bolhuis, Gillian R. Brown, Robert C. Richardson, Kevin N. Laland. Darwin in Mind: New Opportunities for Evolutionary Psychology. PLoS Biology, 2011; 9 (7): e1001109 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.1001109

Chimpanzees Are Spontaneously Generous After All, Study Shows

Source: Science Daily

Researchers at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center have shown chimpanzees have a significant bias for prosocial behavior. This, the study authors report, is in contrast to previous studies that positioned chimpanzees as reluctant altruists and led to the widely held belief that human altruism evolved in the last six million years only after humans split from apes.

The current study findings are available in the online edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

According to Yerkes researchers Victoria Horner, PhD, Frans de Waal, PhD, and their colleagues, chimpanzees may not have shown prosocial behaviors in other studies because of design issues, such as the complexity of the apparatus used to deliver rewards and the distance between the animals.

"I have always been skeptical of the previous negative findings and their over-interpretation, says Dr. de Waal. "This study confirms the prosocial nature of chimpanzees with a different test, better adapted to the species," he continues.

In the current study, Dr. Horner and colleagues greatly simplified the test, which focused on offering seven adult female chimpanzees a choice between two similar actions: one that rewards both the "actor," the term used in the paper for the lead study participant, and a partner, and another that rewards only the actor/chooser herself. Examples of the critically important simplified design aspects include allowing the study partners to sit close together and ensuring conspicuous food consumption, which the researchers achieved by wrapping pieces of banana in paper that made a loud noise upon removal.

In each trial, the chooser, which was always tested with her partner in sight, selected between differently colored tokens from a bin. One colored token could be exchanged with an experimenter for treats for both members of the pair (prosocial); the other colored token would result in a treat only for the chooser (selfish). All seven chimpanzees showed an overwhelming preference for the prosocial choice. The study also showed the choosers behaved altruistically especially towards partners who either patiently waited or gently reminded them that they were there by drawing attention to themselves. The chimpanzees making the choices were less likely to reward partners who made a fuss, begged persistently or spat water at them, thus showing their altruism was spontaneous and not subject to intimidation.

"We were excited to find female after female chose the option that gave both her and her partner food," says Dr. Horner. "It was also interesting to me that being overly persistent did not go down well with the choosers. It was far more productive for partners to be calm and remind the choosers they were there from time to time," she continues.

The authors say this study puts to rest a longstanding puzzle surrounding chimpanzee altruism. It is well-known these apes help each other in the wild and show various forms of empathy, such as reassurance of distressed parties. The negative findings of previous studies did not fit this image. These results, however, confirm chimpanzee altruism in a well-controlled experiment, suggesting human altruism is less of an anomaly than previously thought.

The study authors next plan to determine whether the altruistic tendency of the chimpanzees towards their partners is related to social interactions within the group, such as reciprocal exchanges of food or social support.

Journal Reference:

  1. Victoria Horner, J. Devyn Carter, Malini Suchak, Frans B. M. de Waal. Spontaneous prosocial choice by chimpanzees. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2011; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1111088108