What's new at Basel Zoo

Little Obaye was born at Basel Zoo on 27 September. This baby chimpanzee is now seeing the beginnings of a collaboration between the University of Neuchâtel and Basel Zoo, researching how apes communicate and learn.

Obaye is the son of female chimpanzee Kitoko (24) and is the youngest offshoot of Basel Zoo’s twelve-strong group of chimpanzees. At the moment, he is still too small to take part, but eventually Obaye will also be carrying out the tasks which the chimpanzees are being set.

University of Neuchâtel research at Basel Zoo

A group of researchers from the University of Neuchâtel (led by Prof. Klaus Zuberbühler) is interested in how apes absorb and process information and how they solve problems. Scientists call this cognitive research. The tasks appear on a screen installed in the enclosure: for example, the chimpanzee must identify a tree from among other objects. If they tap the right solution on the touch screen, they automatically receive a small reward. The next step tests whether their ability to identify the image changes if it is accompanied by a sound recording. The researchers gradually set increasingly complex tasks – their long-term objective is to study how apes communicate and how this affects learning and memory.

Only for interested participants

However, to help the chimpanzees learn how to work the screen, the first task was a simple one: the screen lit up green and the chimpanzee touched it for a reward. The chimpanzees have access to the screen for two hours every working day, and then they have the weekends ‘free’, although this is more to do with the researchers’ workload than that of the chimpanzees. All members of the chimpanzee group who enjoy completing the task are able to do so, whilst those who are not interested can simply ignore the screen. Whilst some of Basel’s chimpanzees eagerly collected their rewards, Colebe (12) was only interested in the tasks and left the tasty morsels behind. New mother Kitoko has not shown any interest in the screen, as she is currently busy with her little one. 

Researchers as zoo keepers

The gorilla and orangutan enclosures will soon also be fitted with screens to allow a comparison of cognitive abilities in the three primate species. The researchers have been trained by Basel Zoo’s zoo keepers to allow them to work near the apes, and they are also helping with everyday animal care: it is not just the apes but also the zoo keepers who are being set new tasks as a result of the university collaboration, so assistance with everyday work is welcome. The collaboration with the University of Neuchâtel is still in its infancy – the project is designed to last for several years and should help us to study the cognitive abilities of our closest relatives.