Four-year-old Bernas isn’t the computer wizard his mom is, but he’s learning. Just the other day he used his lips and feet to play a game on the touch-screen monitor as his mom, Madu, swung from vines and climbed trees. The two Sumatran orangutans at Zoo Atlanta are playing computer games while researchers study the cognitive skills of the orange and brown primates.
The best part? Zoo visitors get to watch their every move.
The orangutans use a touch screen built into a tree-like structure that blend in with their zoo habitat. Visitors watch from a video monitor in front of the exhibit.
“That’s so cool,” Jeri McCarthy told her three daughters as Bernas drew a red, blue and yellow picture on the screen. “He can’t get enough!”
Zoo officials hope the exhibit will raise awareness of the rapidly diminishing wild orangutan population, which is on track to completely disappear in the next decade, and potentially provide keys to their survival.
“The more we understand about orangutan’s cognitive processes, the more we’ll understand about what they need to survive in the wild,” said Tara Stoinski, manager of conservation partnerships for the zoo. “It enables us to show the public how smart they are.”
In one game, orangutans choose identical photographs or match orangutan sounds with photos of the animals – correct answers are rewarded with food pellets. Another game lets them draw pictures by moving their hands and other body parts around the screen. Printouts of their masterpieces are on display in the zoo.
The computer games, which volunteers from IBM spent nearly 500 hours developing, test the animals’ memory, reasoning and learning, spitting out sheets of data for researchers at the zoo and Atlanta’s Center for Behavioral Neuroscience, a partner in the project.
The data will help researchers learn about socializing patterns, such as whether they mimic others or learn behavior from scratch through trial and error, said Elliott Albers with the Center for Behavioral Neuroscience.
Researchers hope the data can point to new conservation strategies to help the 37,000 orangutans living in the wild on the Indonesian islands of Borneo and Sumatra.
“Hopefully we can get the animals to find better sources of food more easily,” Albers said.
The National Zoo in Washington, D.C., and Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago are also conducting such orangutan research. Visitors can also watch the animals use computers at the National Zoo, Stoinski said.