Custom touchscreen application used to study navigation in chimpanzees

Aangepaste touchscreen-applicatie die wordt gebruikt om de mogelijkheid te testen om navigatie bij chimpansees te bestuderen

The APExplorer 3D app. (Left) Example of a reconnaissance experiment. (Right) Setup mode that allows the examiner to control various parameters such as walking speed, perspective, head orientation, and others. Credit: scientific progress (2022). DOI: 10.1126/sciaadv.abm4754

A small international team of researchers has discovered that it is possible to test navigation skills in chimpanzees using virtual reality technology. In their article published in the magazine scientific progress, the researchers describe the custom application they created and how well it worked when tested with captive chimpanzees at a zoo.

Scientists have tried to test navigation skills in chimpanzees for many years. Such studies usually involve attempts to track the primates in their native habitat, which often means conducting research in the jungle. Needless to say, such efforts have not yielded much new information. Nor have attempts been made to track captive chimpanzees in semi-natural environments. In this new effort, the researchers have tried a new approach: teaching captive chimpanzees to use touchscreen applications, then having them move through simulated jungle scenes to collect a reward.

The researchers’ work in this new effort involved enlisting the voluntary help of six chimpanzees living at the Leipzig Zoo in Germany. Each was first taught to use a touch screen computer as a means of obtaining various real rewards. One of the uses the chimpanzees learned was a video game that made it easy for them to familiarize themselves with the computers. The chimpanzees were then invited to a different species video gameone navigating through a virtual environment to reach a certain end point – in their case a certain tree. When they did, they were rewarded with fruits in the real world.

Each of the chimpanzees was given a chance to play the game for ten minutes and was allowed to play it multiple times. They were also given the option to decline to play if they wished.

To test their navigation skills, the researchers set up the virtual game in different ways. In the first, the chimpanzees always started from the same virtual place and were encouraged to travel to the same desired tree. In another scenario, the chimpanzees started in different virtual places, but were expected to arrive at the same tree. After several practice sessions, all the chimpanzees learned to make their way through the virtual jungle to reach their destination – and three of them improved their path, making their travels more efficient.

The researchers suggest that their experiments show that: virtual reality applications could be used as an effective means of testing navigation in chimpanzees, and perhaps other primates.

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More information:
Matthias Allritz et al, Chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) navigate to find hidden fruits in a virtual environment, scientific progress (2022). DOI: 10.1126/sciaadv.abm4754

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