Scientists Rethinking Nature of Animal Memory

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Bennett Schwartz, a cognitive psychologist at Florida International University in Miami, is studying memory in a western lowland gorilla named King.

Memory in Chimps and Gorillas

King, a 450-pound (205-kilogram) male silverback in his 30s, communicates with caretakers via picture cards. Using the cards, he has shown that he can remember who gave him certain foods—even when his caretakers cannot remember.

Recently Schwartz and his colleagues staged events in front of King using 33 people that the gorilla had never seen before. Different individuals would do jumping jacks or "steal" a phone from King's trainer or play the guitar.

When King was asked to identify the person by activity, he was correct more than 60 percent of the time. "It's a little like targeting one person out of a police lineup," Schwartz says. He is now beginning to teach King the concept of time—yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

For studies at Georgia State University in Atlanta, anthropologist Charles Menzel is working with a female chimpanzee named Panzee, who uses a keyboard with more than 256 lexigrams.

Outside Panzee's enclosure, Menzel and his colleagues hid more than 30 different items, one at a time—kiwis, pineapples, rubber snakes, balloons, and paper—while Panzee was watching.

In more than 90 percent of the cases, Panzee correctly identified which type of item was hidden where, and directed her caretakers—unaware of the hiding places—to find the specified toys and fruits. Menzel points out that Panzee herself initiates the communication—significant because the act of "remembering" is spontaneous.

"Animals are using something related to episodic memory, but not necessarily the same as in humans," Menzel says. "Animal memory systems have always been underestimated—the upper limits are not really known."

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