Field of Science

Chimpanzee plans for the future

ResearchBlogging.orgSantino is a thirty year old male chimpanzee at Furuvik Zoo in Sweden. For the last decade he has been collecting stones before the zoo opens, stashing them in around his enclosure, and then when the visitors arrive, has been throwing the rocks at them - though, thankfully, he apparently has poor aim.

The significance of this, as Mathias Osvath details in an article in Biology Direct, is the observation of other species than humans planning for the future. Vainly, I would say, we go around thinking that this is something that only humans do, and while there has been a few anecdotal reports of such observed behavior, this is a first thorough study of its kind.
Since the initial findings, caretakers have removed hundreds of caches. The gathering of stones has been observed on at least 50 distinct occasions, and the manufacturing of the concrete discs has been directly observed at least 18 times. However, concrete pieces were regularly present in the caches or individually along the shore.
For a behavior to signal planning for a future state, the predominant mental state during the planning must be different from the one mental state in the situation that is planned for. Santino prepared his caches of stones hours in advance of throwing them, and was calm while he collected them, while he was in an agitated state when he took his revenge on the people responsible for his captivity committed his foul deeds.

The striking thing about these behaviors is how they suggest a parallel between pre-human and chimpanzee cognitive abilities:
similar forms of stone manipulation constitute the most ancient signs of culture. Finds as old as 2.6 million years suggest that hominins carried and accumulated stone artefacts on certain sites, presumably a case of future need planning.
Give the chimps 3 million years in the right environment, and I wouldn't be surprised if they invented language and quantum physics. A little surprised, but not so much that I couldn't muster a 'told you so'.

The male [Santino] displays with a stone in his left hand. The forceful bipedal
locomotion and the pilo-erection (hair on end) are signs of agitation.

A pile of Santino's stones. Good thing his aims sucks. Imagine being hit by one of these.

Also in the news: Study: Belligerent chimp proves animals make plans

Mathias Osvath (2009). Spontaneous planning for future stone throwing by a male chimpanzee Current Biology, 19 (5) DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2009.01.010


  1. My goodness, isn't this pretty obvious? The chimp is aggravated, and suffering from the tedium implicit in being continually "watched".We share an awful lot of DNA with these guys, and I'm certain we would not enjoy being watched. We might "plan" to strike out, too, if we were in his situation.This is not "projection" or my anthropomorphizing the animal, but it IS a valid comment. Good for you, giving this much-needed attention. And validity!
    Peace to you.

  2. Lisa, I agree that this seems like quite human behavior. I would indeed probably do the very same thing if I was locked up and people came to stare at me all day long.

    But it isn't obvious before this evidence that chimps could plan for the future as described. There was of course the talking chimps and gorilla, who used American sign language and showed that they (actually, this was Koko the gorilla) can feel ashamed and are able to lie, and thus have feelings of right and wrong, and feel guilty, etc.


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