Like other primates, orangutans exhibit humanlike qualities — from careful parenting to the use of tools. But how do their thought processes work? Are orangutans capable of cognitively figuring out complex problems? To find out, Washington DC’s National Zoo has set up the Think Tank, a research center where orangutans do everything from solve puzzles to operate computers — tasks usually left to scientists. Rob Shumaker coordinates the Think Tank’s Orangutan Language Project, featured on the NATURE program. There, he teaches orangutans a language based on symbols to find out how they think.
Once the orangutans have learned how the symbols work, scientists reason, the apes may start to put them in an order that signifies meaning.
Azy, an adult male, knows seven different symbols. Shumaker and his colleagues also investigate how well these apes resolve complicated problems, such as retrieving food from locked containers.
Azy and Indah, a female also featured on NATURE, must figure out the best way to get a delicious-smelling peach out from a box shut tight with a variety of clasps. After some initial pummeling, both orangutans stopped bashing the boxes and used their hands, feet, and prior experience to get the clasps open, reasoning out the solution the same way humans do.