Most afternoons at the Lincoln Park Zoo, visitors can see something that is both extraordinary and a sight they may also have witnessed in the back seat on the way to the zoo: a primate using an iPad.
A human child passing time with a glowing touch-screen device, of course, is as unsurprising as his parent failing to score triple digits in Flappy Bird.
But the zoo's primate is Azizi, a 10-year-old gorilla, and he uses the touch screen to take daily memory tests that become part of the zoo's research on apes and cognition.
The display that is wheeled to the screen wall of his enclosure at the Regenstein Center for African Apes is not, strictly speaking, an iPad. It's a larger touch screen fed its data by a laptop computer, but from the ape's perspective, it works pretty much the same way as an iPad.
Holding one corner of the video display with his left hand, Azizi uses his right to tap the screen in the correct way to try to unmask the four hidden symbols in the right order. When he succeeds, he gets a small reward, a peanut or a grape on a recent Wednesday session.
All the gorillas take the tests, but Azizi is the star performer, having moved to a level of complexity that researchers were previously unsure that gorillas could achieve.
"It's safe to say that Azizi is further advanced at this task than any gorilla in the world," says Steve Ross, director of the zoo's Lester E. Fisher Center for the Study and Conservation of Apes.
The experiments are one aspect of a small but growing incorporation of touch-screen technology into the lives of our close cousins at zoos and sanctuaries.
More typical is the informal enrichment offered at the suburban Brookfield Zoo. Keepers there have occasionally helped female orangutan Maggie, 52, play Ant Crusher and Fruit Ninja on an iPad, and Kekasih, 5, has used the Photo Booth app. The zoo is studying ways that touch screens might allow for ape-visitor interaction in the next animal habitat it builds, replacing the recently closed Baboon Island.
"We think that would be cool," says Bill Zeigler, senior vice president for collections and animal care.
And orangutans and chimpanzees at almost two dozen zoos and sanctuaries take part in Apps for Apes, an informal program put together by Orangutan Outreach, a conservation organization out of New York, says Richard Zimmerman, the organization's founder.
"Most of what we have done (uses) existing apps off the shelf," says Zimmerman, "Bubbles or Koi Pond or simple music apps, replicating what they've done with enrichment in analog form."
Zimmerman's work caught the attention of "The Colbert Report," which did a fanciful "special report" suggesting that teaching orangutans to use iPads could lead to a simian takeover.
"The new threat to America," Colbert intoned with mock seriousness, "is apes armed with iPads, thanks to this maniac" — meaning Zimmerman. To be clear: The apes in all the real-world scenarios are never allowed to actually hold the devices. That would be dangerous to both iPad and primate. They work them by extending fingers through a screen or between bars.
"The iPads would never stand up to orangutan scrutiny," Zeigler notes dryly.
And much of the work, such as Apps for Apes, is a mostly ad hoc addition to the institutions' enrichment programs, a logical next step on a continuum that has included, in past iterations of technology, showing the animals DVDs. Zimmerman had his "aha" moment while watching Steve Jobs give the presentation introducing Apple's first iPad, in January 2010. His reaction was different, it is safe to say, than that of almost everyone else who was watching.
"I thought, 'Wow, finally we now have something we can do with the orangutan,'" he recalls.
Zookeepers on their own began trying out iPads with their animal charges. Zimmerman "put together some thoughts" on how they might be used and formed Apps for Apes, which got a boost when the National Geographic Society "gave us a lot of iPads to distribute at about 20 zoos and sanctuaries," he says.
While he laughs about Colbert's spin on the whole project, Zimmerman acknowledges that a big part of his goal in getting attention for apes and iPads — a pretty easy idea to sell to the press — is to then use the spotlight to talk about the great peril facing orangutans, critically endangered in the wild. But improving the lives of captive orangs is meaningful to him, too, he says, and that can now include squashing pretend ants on a 10-inch screen or crafting digital art with a painting app.
Brookfield is not formally associated with Apps for Apes, but its animal-care specialists are aware of it and are doing some of the same kinds of things with their orangutans.
"Orangutans are one of those species that are truly thinkers," Zeigler says. "You can sit and watch an orangutan study something. That's why they are known as great escape artists."
Working with them and iPads occasionally "helps us gage how we develop our welfare-management programs down the road," Zeigler says.
"The primary reason for looking at it is, Where do we go in the future, as we refurbish some exhibits, as we look at new exhibits, and what part can some of the new technology that people are using become part of an exhibit?"
At Lincoln Park, the touch-screen experiments have been part of an exhibit for the past two years, when the memory tests moved from backstage to public space. Most weekdays at 1:30 p.m. in the ape house, visitors can watch the experiments being conducted.
"Unlike most places that do cognitive research in a university or research setting, we're doing it right on display where educators can explain exactly what the public is able to see," says Ross. "It's really an engaging way to explain, we think, how smart these animals are and that the zoo is engaged in research."
That the gorillas choose to take part in the voluntary experiments 95 percent of the time suggests to him and his colleagues that the animals enjoy the mental challenge.
Indeed, although his off-exhibit space was available to Azizi during last Wednesday's trial, the big, dominant male, sat patiently near the touch screen, waiting for a photographer to set up his equipment before the experiment started.
"I'm not sure the food (reward) actually matters," Ross says. "He seems to enjoy it on its own terms."
Ross and cognitive research assistant Kathy Wagner are currently also studying how enriching the touch-screen work is that Lincoln Park Zoo has been doing since 2006 and since 2008 with Azizi.
"At least the beginning data suggests that when the apes are engaged in this sort of behavior, they actually tend to be more social," Ross says — an observation that may come as a surprise to many human parents.
What won't surprise people is their observation that the younger apes seem to adapt to the technology more quickly.
Azizi, however, had something of an off day Wednesday: He got the task right 60 percent of the time, when he has previously scored as high as 83 percent. Researchers are looking for him to score 75 percent or better three times in a row to prove mastery and move him to the next level, from a four-symbol task to a five-symbol task, Wagner says.
But he has already gone further than any gorilla at this and, in the process, challenged some beliefs about his species.
"The folks who are really leaders in this field are Japanese colleagues who work primarily with chimpanzees," said Ross. "They were particularly interested in finding out how gorillas can do, and I think it was a surprise, really, to the primatological community that gorillas were able to operate at this level. I think the consensus to some degree is that gorillas are maybe a little bit slower. They're not as obviously intelligent as maybe some of the more manipulative species.
"This type of research demonstrates that gorillas, especially in these sorts of tasks, are really up for the challenge."
And if people want to try the challenge for themselves — beat the gorilla, as it were — the zoo is planning to put a version of the test that Azizi takes up on its website by the end of this week. The link to that site will be lpzoo.org/magazine/interactives/cog.
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