Orangutans plan their future route and communicate it to others

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Male orangutans plan their travel route up to one day in advance and communicate it to other members of their species. In order to attract females and repel male rivals, they call in the direction in which they are going to travel. Anthropologists at the University of Zurich have found that not only captive, but also wild-living orangutans make use of their planning ability.

 


For a long time it was thought that only humans had the ability to anticipate future actions, whereas animals are caught in the here and now. But in recent years, clever experiments with great apes in zoos have shown that they do remember past events and can plan for their future needs. Anthropologists at the University of Zurich have now investigated whether wild apes also have this skill, following them for several years through the dense tropical swamplands of Sumatra.

Orangutans communicate their plans

Orangutans generally journey through the forest alone, but they also maintain social relationships. Adult males sometimes emit loud 'long calls' to attract females and repel rivals. Their cheek pads act as a funnel for amplifying the sound in the same way as a megaphone.

Written By: Science Daily
continue to source article at sciencedaily.com

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  1. For a long time it was thought that only humans had the ability to anticipate future actions, whereas animals are caught in the here and now.

    Human egocentricity and theistic nonsense has led to all sorts of mistaken assumptions which are being debunked by research.

    • In reply to #1 by Alan4discussion:

      For a long time it was thought that only humans had the ability to anticipate future actions, whereas animals are caught in the here and now.

      Human egocentricity and theistic nonsense has led to all sorts of mistaken assumptions which are being debunked by research.

      On the other hand Orang Hutan in Malay literally means “person of the forest”. The natives when describing the animals to the first Europeans to encounter therm appear to have attributed human characteristics e.g. speech to them. Would have been interesting to know where the natives, back then, placed these creatures in the animal – human hierarchy. As their equals? Assuming, of course that they even thought in anything resembling a hierarchical framework – another theistic/anthropocentric assumption.

  2. I’ve always found the notion that only us humans grasp the concepts of past, present and future hard to swallow. Surely animals are lead to a large extent by their instincts in the present, but this isn’t mutually exclusive with planning ahead to address future instincts.

    • In reply to #4 by mmurray:

      For a long time it was thought that only humans had the ability to …

      Wake me when someone finds something that fills in those dots.

      Michael

      Comment on a web blog?

      I kid, I kid. Language is unique to humans, though, due to its grammatical complexity and ability to symbolically represent abstractions, even through non-verbal media (such as writing).

      On the article itself, I do get a sense of “is it really that surprising?” However, the specifics are more interesting when you find the original abstract:

      The ability to plan for the future beyond immediate needs would be adaptive to many animal species, but is widely thought to be uniquely human. Although studies in captivity have shown that great apes are capable of planning for future needs, it is unknown whether and how they use this ability in the wild. Flanged male Sumatran orangutans (Pongo abelii) emit long calls, which females use to maintain earshot associations with them. We tested whether long calls serve to communicate a male’s ever-changing predominant travel direction to facilitate maintaining these associations. We found that the direction in which a flanged male emits his long calls predicts his subsequent travel direction for many hours, and that a new call indicates a change in his main travel direction. Long calls given at or near the night nest indicate travel direction better than random until late afternoon on the next day. These results show that male orangutans make their travel plans well in advance and announce them to conspecifics. We suggest that such a planning ability is likely to be adaptive for great apes, as well as in other taxa.

      It used to be thought that orang utans are unusual among apes in being solitary creatures, but after watching a few David Attenborough documentaries and reading about them, I think they’re actually quite social creatures that just have different lifestyles. For instance, they gather in groups at different times of the year for mating and social grooming. This kind of experiment adds another layer to our understanding of these seemingly alien minds.

      • In reply to #5 by Zeuglodon:

        In reply to #4 by mmurray:

        For a long time it was thought that only humans had the ability to …

        Wake me when someone finds something that fills in those dots.

        Michael

        Comment on a web blog?

        I kid, I kid. Language is unique to humans, though, due to its grammatical complexity and ability to symbolically represent abstractions, even through non-verbal media (such as writing).

        But is it something unique to us or something we do better ? A lot, lot better of course.

        On the article itself, I do get a sense of “is it really that surprising?” However, the specifics are more interesting when you find the original abstract:

        I guess I shouldn’t have said “wake me” as if I was implying the article was boring. I was trying to indicate how amazing it is that every time we humans think we can draw a line in the sand that distinguishes us from (other) animals someone scuffs it up and we bet a retreat back down the beach !

        Michael

        • In reply to #6 by mmurray:

          In reply to #5 by Zeuglodon:

          In reply to #4 by mmurray:

          I know it’s tempting to regard language as animal communication to a much higher degree, but I think this is misleading because the two genuinely do have different fundamental structures. For instance, human language isn’t just symbolic of concrete things like leopards or eagles – as the cries of certain kinds of monkey might be – but also symbolize abstractions, logical connections and categories, complex ideas, and intangible or nonexistent hypotheticals and probabilities that you can’t really point to in the same way you can point to another animal.

          Language I think is almost a cheap and efficient way to expose your brain and its workings to someone else, at least in part. Animal communication seems to me to be almost exclusively about impersonal manipulation; it’s about using raw noise to get simple responses out of others – say, a warning call to get the herd to flee with you, or a hiss to get another animal to go away.

          Also, and most importantly to my point, it’s not really combined into a complex system the same way human language is, and within a species, it doesn’t vary nearly as much as human language does. Even those New Zealand bird species that have accents in their calls don’t really have any other variation in their calls. The only close example I can think of is whale song, and that’s probably raw music intended to impress with its vocal variety – a kind of respiratory peacock’s tail – rather than structured and complex communication.

          • In reply to #7 by Zeuglodon:

            I know it’s tempting to regard language as animal communication to a much higher degree, but I think this is misleading because the two genuinely do have different fundamental structures. For instance, human language isn’t just symbolic of concrete things like leopards or eagles – as the cries of certain kinds of monkey might be – but also symbolize abstractions, logical connections and categories, complex ideas, and intangible or nonexistent hypotheticals and probabilities that you can’t really point to in the same way you can point to another animal.

            I don’t alway keep good track of who I’ve talked over what subjects here so I apologize if we’ve already discussed this (I know I had an interesting conversation with someone on a different thread on this topic but I don’t think it was you but I also no longer trust my memory much). Anyway, at the risk I’m repeating something I’ve already bored you to death with, what you said about language can actually be modelled mathematically. One of Chomsky’s main achievements is the definition of the Chomsky hierarchy of languages. He proved mathematically that there are different levels of complexity for language. There are simple stimulus-response languages. There are languages where you need to use context to completely understand the semantics of the language. Then there are languages where you need to use context even to correctly parse the sentence. Those last kinds are the most complex and they are the kind of languages that humans use. The middle kind is what computers use, syntactically unambiguous but semantically requiring context (recursion, variables, etc.).

            You can model most, maybe all, non-human animal communication using the simplest kind of context independent grammar. Essentially things like state machines (a non-directed graph) that say if you are in state X and you receive communication X1 you move to state Y. BTW, even these graphs can get complex and interesting, there can be loops, conditionals, etc. But you can’t handle things like unbounded levels of nesting, things like “the boy who kicked the cat who ate the rat liked to play outside”. For that you need more powerful computing models up to a full Turing Machine (an abstraction, not an actual machine) which is needed to process human natural language.

            The thing is a Turing Machine can also (this is what Turing proved) do all sorts of other complex calculations. So one hypothesis that Chomsky has and that I think is shared by people like Pinker is that at some point in our evolution there was an adaptation to the brain that increased its ability to process information. Essentially the brain moved up a level in the Chomsky hierarchy and that increase in computing power gave us language as well as probably a lot of other capabilities, e.g. algebraic math.

          • In reply to #9 by Red Dog:

            In reply to #7 by Zeuglodon:

            No, I think this is the first time I’ve ever seen you discuss it. Then again, my memory is probably worse than yours, but for what it’s worth, I don’t recognize the concept. I find it fascinating regardless.

            However, I did look it up on Wikipedia, and it describes the hierarchy as one for computer languages, which I think is a bit different from the study of human language (give or take one’s views on the computational theory of mind), and with no apparent reference to the distinctions you mentioned for humans and animals. Was that mentioned elsewhere in his writings?

          • In reply to #10 by Zeuglodon:

            However, I did look it up on Wikipedia, and it describes the hierarchy as one for computer languages, which I think is a bit different from the study of human language (give or take one’s views on the computational theory of mind), and with no apparent reference to the distinctions you mentioned for humans and animals. Was that mentioned elsewhere in his writings?

            Chomsky was a linguist so yes absolutely his work was about all languages not just computer languages. In fact one of the amazing things to me is that the same theory applies to computer languages and natural languages. I can see why they would focus on computer languages though because it turned out that Chomsky’s work is incredibly relevant to computers, much more so than even he realized when he did it. I actually think if it wasn’t for his political work Chomsky would be more recognized, as IMO he should be, as one of the leading thinkers right up there with Turing and Von Neumann for the mathematical foundations of computer science. There are these special programs called compilers. A compiler is the program that parses the code of a computer language. The design of such programs is incredibly difficult, its one of the most rigorous things you do in computer science, more like doing a math proof than writing a code about customer billing or the kind of programs I mostly used to work on. And Chomsky’s work essentially allows you to formalize and automate some of that process. If I say more I’m in danger of having a CS student comment and start telling me how wrong I am because its been a long time since I’ve written any compiler programs (I actually did get to define my own executable specification language once which was the most fun a nerd can have at work with your pants on). Anyway, the compiler is really what makes every program you use on any computer possible and there would be no compilers without Chomsky’s theories.

            But getting back to your question, when you take the compiler class the first thing you have to go through is an overview of the Chomsky hierarchy (actually there is also a whole class on automota theory that you need that just goes into the proofs, etc.) and one of the things the professor threw out as an aside is “btw this also applies to human language but of course that’s not relevant”.

            Chomsky is one of those people (like Dawkins) who chooses his words very carefully so I don’t think he ever said anything as simple as what I said in the previous comment because he would look at that and just say its speculation which it is. But I think he said things that were more carefully worded that essentially imply what I said. I’m working on other things this am but I will see what I can find when I get a chance and post something back here eventually.

          • In reply to #7 by Zeuglodon:

            In reply to #6 by mmurray:

            In reply to #5 by Zeuglodon:

            In reply to #4 by mmurray:

            I know it’s tempting to regard language as animal communication to a much higher degree, but I think this is misleading because the two genuinely do have different fundamental structures. For instance, human langua…

            Thanks. That’s interesting. What about the claim dolphin’s have a unique whistle for each other ? Does that set them apart or is it maybe just that they recognise an individuals sound like we might recognised a particular dogs bark ?

            Michael

  3. An orangutan is quite heavy. It wants to avoid unnecessary travel. It knows when various trees in its territory come into fruition. It has to solve a sort of travelling salesman problem, including how it can get from tree to tree avoiding the ground. To do this, it must have a fairly impressive mental map.

  4. Here is an interesting paper on the topic I mentioned earlier. Its by Chomsky and two others. They try to define various information processing modules that apply to humans and sometimes other animals and show how general capabilities required for human natural language (recursion, composition, numbers,…) are also relevant for a vast range of other behaviors: signalling, planning, etc.

    The Faculty of Language: What is it, who has it and how did it Evolve?

  5. In reply to #1 by Alan4discussion:

    For a long time it was thought that only humans had the ability to anticipate future actions, whereas animals are caught in the here and now.
    Human egocentricity and theistic nonsense has led to all sorts of mistaken assumptions which are being debunked by research.

    I don’t disagree that humans are egocentric and many of us, including many scientists, have thought we were more different than we are, have wanted a qualitative divide between humans and all other animals that isn’t justified. One of the worst examples (a guy I otherwise admire) was Descartes who claimed that animals had no souls and hence didn’t feel pain. That was used for centuries to justify the most barbaric kinds of torture in the name of research.

    But at the same time there is no question that from a scientific standpoint, looking at human behavior, there is a lot that is unique about humans, written language, use of language that can handle things like recursion, science, religion, etc.

    In the 70′s there was a lot of research — I think its fair to say it was influenced by the counter-culture of the 60′s — where researchers tried to show that the only reason primates don’t use language the way humans do is that they haven’t had the appropriate environment and because of physical limitations on their speech capability. Researchers took primates into their homes and adopted them (which led to some funny and not so funny incidents as cute baby chimps turned into aggressive adolescent chimps looking to assert dominance). And they tried teaching them American Sign Language (ASL) from birth the way a child would learn.

    The most famous is Nim Chimpsky who was named as a dig at Chomsky. The researcher thought that he was going to disprove Chomsky’s theory of Universal Grammar, that humans are born with a unique capability to learn language (remember when I say language here I mean context sensitive languages, the kind at the top of the Chomsky hierarchy, there is no question that animals handle concepts and communication that could be represented by one of the other less powerful levels of language). The idea was that Chimps only didn’t use full language because they couldn’t make the appropriate range of sounds so ASL would make up for that. (ASL is a true language with grammar just like any other major human language)

    In the book Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would be Human the researcher admitted that his research was a failure. Nim learned lots of signs and simple combinations of signs but not true grammar. And the results that I’ve heard of from other similar research was the same, lots of signs learned but not actual grammar. So, yes we need to watch for arrogance but we also don’t want to gloss over what are probably fascinating clues to human psychology and understanding the important ways we are rather special.

  6. I have long studied where animals (except humans) get their apparent knowledge and why humans are born dumb as dirt, and think I may have stumbled on the answer, and ‘god’ at the same time. Radio communication seems to have no limits, as demonstrated by the fact that our scientists are talking to what essentially is a cellphone eleven BILLION miles away. Being a lifelong (41 years) computer programmer, I just cannot seem to believe that the programming that must be carried forward or the newborn animal’s knowledge could be contained in a single cell. I once raised hogs and was amazed by the intelligence of a newborn pig. I have a new puppy born here five months ago and watched it learn to understand English commands at only three weeks old. I have also wondered for many decades why humanity is the only entities that create new knowledge, that seemingly being the only thing that it does. I have come up with a hypothesis (actually, it is more, but I can’t tell you all) that all things with a brain communicate via radio waves and those communications are controlled by a segment of the brain that is a remote part of a vast supercomputer existing in fragments in all things that have brains. These animals receive their instructions as to how to be what they are upon birth from this supercomputer. It probably enables the lower animals to communicate with one another. We just have not detected these radio waves because we have not yet developed receivers that are sensitive enough. Now the human question, why not us too? That leads to another theory, that humans were actually purposely designed by this supercomputer to be forced to create it’s own knowledge, and unlimited new knowledge, through the manipulation of the genes. Why? So we humans could eventually learn how the universe works, and more importantly, if it can be controlled, and if humans can be the controllers. This means that this ‘god’ supercomputer was created via evolution and not the other way around, and that it wants to live forever. It cannot let us know of it’s existence because that might interfere with the creation of new knowledge, might make us dependent on it and slow down the search for new knowledge. Sometimes it might seep through, and somehow, all of humanity seems to automatically know that somewhere there is intelligence behind our existence. Those occasional “seep through’s” are interpreted as ‘paranormal happenings’, ‘mind reading, etc.

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