before it's in the papers"
August 03, 2010
TO THE WORLD SCIENCE HOME PAGE
Animals may plan ahead, studies find
and World Science staff
Two studies have found that at least three non-human animals may be able to plan ahead.
The research is important for understanding the evolution of human foresight, scientists say. “It is time to carefully investigate foresight, because humans may need to get better at it if we are to continue to survive,” wrote Thomas Suddendorf of the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia, in the May 19 issue of the research journal Science.
Writing in the same issue of the journal, Nicholas J. Mulcahy and Josep Call of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany described a study in bonobo chimps and orangutans.
They found that bonobo chimpanzees and orangutans could choose a suitable tool for reaching a treat, carry it away and return with it to retrieve a treat hours later. It appears the apes were planning ahead for future rewards, the researchers proposed.
But “much clever experimentation is required to determine what foresight apes have and what the limits of this ability are,” Suddendorf wrote.
The findings suggest our skills for planning ahead arose at least 14 million years ago, when the last common ancestor of bonobos, orangutans and humans lived, Mulcahy and Call suggested.
Again in the same issue of the journal, other scientists reported what might be related findings with Western scrub-jays. These birds store food for future meals, but are always looking over their wings when they do so, wary of more dominant jays who might pilfer their hidden food.
Joanna Dally of the University of Cambridge in Cambridge, U.K. and colleagues reported evidence that scrub-jays remember which birds were watching them when they first stored their food. They then use this information to decide whether to move the goods elsewhere to avoid theft, they wrote.
This could mean scrub-jays have what cognitive researchers call a “theory of mind,” the scientists proposed—the ability to understand another organism’s thoughts and intentions. But they cautioned that the behavior they documented doesn’t necessarily require a theory of mind. Instead, it could result from specific learning patterns or predictions about future risks.
The findings with birds and primates may be related, Suddendorf suggested, because there’s growing evidence that remembering and predicting—looking into the past and future—are closely related processes.
Amnesiacs “who are unable to answer simple questions about yesterday have been found to be equally unable to say what might happen tomorrow,” he wrote. “Children begin to accurately answer both such questions from around the same age. Imagining future events and remembering past events are associated with similar brain activity.”
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