Testing how chimpanzees navigate in virtual environments could help researchers understand why they prefer certain routes in the wild over others
24 June 2022
Chimpanzees in a zoo have been trained to use a touchscreen to navigate a virtual environment and seek out objects. Studies like this could help us learn more about how our close relatives find their way around in the jungle.
“There’s a lot of research on the navigation of birds and bees,” says Matthias Allritz at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. “But we know very little about the navigation of most primate species.” This is largely because chimpanzees are difficult to track in the wild, Allritz says. “Primates are fast and they might go through foliage, which is difficult to follow,” he says.
Over several weeks, Allritz and his colleagues trained six chimpanzees at Leipzig Zoo to use a touchscreen and play a video game in which they had to navigate to a tree to find a piece of fruit. When they did this, they were rewarded with a real fruit. The chimpanzees were given 10 minutes at a time with the game until they learned how to move in the virtual environment. The primates could refuse to take part at any time and all had used touchscreens previously. None of the animals were harmed in the study, Allritz says.
Testing chimpanzees in virtual environments could give researchers a better idea about why they prefer certain routes in the wild over others. “Knowing what kind of travel routes chimpanzees typically decide can help us develop computer simulations that can estimate the shape and size of home ranges that need to be protected,” Allritz says.
In the first experiment, the chimpanzees tried multiple times to find the same tree from the same starting point. In the second experiment, they started from a different position in the virtual environment. The team wanted to see if the animals could still navigate to the tree in order to collect the virtual fruit.
With practice, all six chimps could complete both tasks. But only three improved the efficiency of their routes with practice in the first task. “There could be many reasons for this,” Allritz says. “Some chimpanzees may have been better at recognising the landmark or they may simply have been less clumsy in using the touchscreen controls.”
Allritz says the study was ultimately about proving that chimpanzees could interact with a virtual environment that looked like a real-world setting. “The chimpanzees could have just walked around in circles,” he says.
Jill Pruetz at the University of Texas says such experiments let us study chimpanzees in a way that can’t be done in the wild. “So in general I think that captive primate work is very worthwhile,” she says.
Journal reference: Science Advances, DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.abm4754
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