Chimpanzees shown to ‘take turns’ to solve number puzzles

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  • Puzzle involved chimpanzees hitting numbers in order using a shared screen 
  • Study is the first to show that chimpanzees can cope with complex turn-taking
  • It shows that young chimps listen more to their mothers than vice versa 
  • This gives important insights into how we evolved to work together in groups 

Harry Pettit For Mailonline

Chimpanzees have been shown spontaneously taking turns to complete a number sequence puzzle.

The research is the first to show that chimpanzees can cope with complex turn-taking, with no cues to help time their behaviour.

Researchers hope the findings will shed light on how our ancestors evolved to work together in groups.  

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Chimpanzees have been shown spontaneously taking turns to complete a number sequence puzzle in a new study. Researchers developed a new 'shared' touchscreen apparatus that could be used simultaneously by two chimpanzees to touch a sequence of numbers

Chimpanzees have been shown spontaneously taking turns to complete a number sequence puzzle in a new study. Researchers developed a new 'shared' touchscreen apparatus that could be used simultaneously by two chimpanzees to touch a sequence of numbers

Chimpanzees have been shown spontaneously taking turns to complete a number sequence puzzle in a new study. Researchers developed a new ‘shared’ touchscreen apparatus that could be used simultaneously by two chimpanzees to touch a sequence of numbers

THE STUDY 

To conduct the study, the team developed a new ‘shared’ touchscreen apparatus that could be used simultaneously by two chimpanzees. 

The chimpanzees were already experts at touching a series of numbers in the right order on a screen, but had never been given a shared version of the task.

In this exercise, the numbers 1 to 8 were split between two screens, with pairs of chimpanzees required to take turns to pick the numbers in the right order.

For example, one touchscreen may have shown 1, 5, 7 and 8; the other 2, 3, 4 and 6.

The chimpanzees were rewarded with small pieces of apple each time they successfully completed the task.

Of the six chimpanzees in the study – three mother-and-offspring pairs – all achieved high levels of accuracy from the outset. 

Coordinating behaviour is an essential component of many social situations and can help groups of individuals, including humans, to solve problems together.

In communication, coordination often takes the form of turn-taking, where one individual takes cues from the other to decide on the timing of their own input. 

Study co-author Dr Dora Biro, from the University of Oxford, said: ‘Many animals, from insects through birds to primates, take turns during certain types of communication – as do we humans during conversational exchanges.

‘Our research examined the abilities of our closest evolutionary relatives, chimpanzees, to coordinate their behaviour while completing a computerised puzzle in stages.

‘We showed that extended bouts of turn-taking emerged spontaneously in the subjects, enabling them to solve the complex coordination problem effectively.’

Previous studies have shown chimps working together in strictly alternating turn-taking scenarios.

The research is the first to show that chimpanzees can cope with complex turn-taking, with no cues to help time their behaviour. It gives important insights into the evolution of turn-taking, which underlies a range of social interactions, including communication and language

The research is the first to show that chimpanzees can cope with complex turn-taking, with no cues to help time their behaviour. It gives important insights into the evolution of turn-taking, which underlies a range of social interactions, including communication and language

The research is the first to show that chimpanzees can cope with complex turn-taking, with no cues to help time their behaviour. It gives important insights into the evolution of turn-taking, which underlies a range of social interactions, including communication and language

KEY FINDINGS 

Of the six chimpanzees in the study – three mother-and-offspring pairs – all achieved high levels of accuracy from the beginning of the study.

The young chimpanzees made fewer errors and were quicker to respond than their mothers – however, during control tests involving each chimpanzee working individually with a computer program, the mothers were faster.

This suggests that young chimpanzees are better at paying attention to their mothers than vice versa. 

Apart from turn-taking, the study also provides insights into our ability to improve coordination by putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes.

Brain studies have shown that this is a skill that musicians use while performing duets that require them to take turns.

But the new research, from experts at Oxford University and the University of Kyoto, shows they can interact in more complex turn-taking scenarios too.

To conduct the study, the team developed a new ‘shared’ touchscreen apparatus that could be used simultaneously by two chimpanzees.

The chimpanzees were already experts at touching a series of numbers in the right order on a screen, but had never been given a shared version of the task.

In the exercise, the numbers 1 to 8 were split between two screens, with pairs of chimpanzees required to take turns to pick the numbers in the right order.

For example, one touchscreen may have shown 1, 5, 7 and 8; the other 2, 3, 4 and 6.

The chimpanzees were rewarded with small pieces of apple each time they successfully completed the task.

Of the six chimpanzees in the study – three mother-and-offspring pairs – all achieved high levels of accuracy from the beginning of the study.

The young chimpanzees made fewer errors and were quicker to respond than their mothers – however, during control tests involving each chimpanzee working individually with a computer program, the mothers were faster.

The research suggests that young chimpanzees are better at paying attention to their mothers than vice versa (stock image)

The research suggests that young chimpanzees are better at paying attention to their mothers than vice versa (stock image)

The research suggests that young chimpanzees are better at paying attention to their mothers than vice versa (stock image)

This suggests that young chimpanzees are better at paying attention to their mothers than vice versa.

Dr Biro added: ‘The finding that young chimpanzees more readily took cues from their mothers when looking to take their turns reveals interesting parallels with other aspects of information transmission in chimpanzee societies.

‘For example, during the learning of tool use by wild chimpanzees, we also see young individuals paying attention to older ones much more than the reverse.

‘This kind of asymmetry has important implications for the direction of information flow – for example, how quickly new innovations in behaviour will spread through a group.’

Apart from turn-taking, the study provides insights into our ability to improve coordination by putting ourselves in someone else's shoes. Brain studies have shown that this is a skill that musicians use while performing duets that require them to take turns (stock image)

Apart from turn-taking, the study provides insights into our ability to improve coordination by putting ourselves in someone else's shoes. Brain studies have shown that this is a skill that musicians use while performing duets that require them to take turns (stock image)

Apart from turn-taking, the study provides insights into our ability to improve coordination by putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes. Brain studies have shown that this is a skill that musicians use while performing duets that require them to take turns (stock image)

Apart from turn-taking, the study also provides insights into our ability to improve coordination by putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes.

Brain studies have shown that this is a skill that musicians use while performing duets that require them to take turns.

Dr Biro said: ‘Whether our chimpanzee subjects made use of such perspective-taking capacities during solving the numerical turn-taking task is an interesting open question for future research.’