Max Planck Institute

Chimpanzees become ace hunters in virtual reality video game research

British and American researchers have found that chimpanzees can master the hunt for hidden fruits in a virtual reality video game.

The study, led by Matthias Allritz and Josep Call of the University of St Andrews in the United Kingdom and Francine Dolins of the University of Michigan-Dearborn in the United States, found that chimpanzees used landscape features for better orientation when searching for virtual fruits in the game.

The University of St Andrews and the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, said in statements obtained Monday, June 27, that six chimpanzees living in a zoo had learned to navigate their way through touchscreen technology. to a distant virtual tree with different fruits underneath.

They even figured out how to find the landmark from different starting locations.

The primates, which are located at the Leipzig Zoo, participated in “the first empirical study of how chimpanzees navigate in an open-field, naturalistic, virtual environment and demonstrate that chimpanzee maneuvers in the virtual world share several important features with real navigation. “

The University of St Andrews added in its statement, “The results also suggest that virtual environment technology could be used to address long-standing questions in the study of spatial and other forms of cognition in primates.”

dr. Matthias Allritz, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of St Andrews and the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, said: “Almost all animals navigate their environment to find food, shelter and mates.

“Due to space constraints in zoos, experimentally studying the spatial cognition of non-human primates is notoriously difficult.

Max Planck Institute
The Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History. The study was led by researchers from the University of St Andrews in the UK and the University of Michigan-Dearborn in the United States.
Zenger/Hans Seller

“By using virtual environments, researchers can create large-scale, manageable environments for primate participants to navigate, including completely new environments.”

He added: “In addition to the clear goal orientation in the chimpanzees’ spatial learning, one thing struck us, the remarkable speed with which the chimpanzees learned to control the virtual agent and complete the spatial tasks.

“It required less training than I initially thought, and certainly less than many of the more traditional touchscreen tasks designed for animals.”

The study participants were three adult male and three adult female chimpanzees from the Wolfgang Koehler Primate Research Center (WKPRC) at the Leipzig Zoo.

The statement from the University of St Andrews said: “All six chimpanzees had previous experience using touchscreens, and five of them had limited experience with 3D video games at the time the study began.

monkey chimpanzee
One of the chimpanzees who took part in the study at the Leipzig Zoo in Germany. According to the researchers, all six chimpanzees had previous experience using touchscreens.
Zenger/Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology

“All participation was voluntary and all testing was conducted in the monkeys’ familiar testing areas at WKPRC, where they are given regular access to touchscreen tasks.

“A new custom virtual reality (VR) application – APExplorer 3D – was created for the study, which provides the primates with a virtual environment through which an invisible, first-person character can be controlled to explore and interact with objects in three-dimensional space. to go. cartoon style.”

The video game allows the user, using a touchscreen monitor, to guide a virtual avatar “through an open space with grassy hills, trees, rocks and other obstacles”.

The game’s difficulty was increased over the course of a month, with “increasingly challenging navigational tasks”, with the virtual world focusing on representing “various cognitive processes and behavioral characteristics within the virtual environment that have been predicted to affect navigation in the game.” wildlife, such as learning to recognize and search for different landmarks and optimizing route efficiency.”

dr. Francine Dolins, lead researcher and associate professor at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, said: “Tracking primate navigation in the wild has many challenges, including not knowing what historical information they use as a basis for making spatial decisions.

“Virtual reality offers more control over which landmarks are presented and where they are in relation to the virtual foraging sites, for example a fruit tree.”

Professor Josep Call said: “Our study illustrates that non-invasive experiments in open space virtual environments have great potential to study primate spatial cognition.

“The chimpanzees in our study learned basic game mechanics quickly and soon exhibited learning and decision-making patterns that resembled real navigation.

“They learned to recognize and orient certain objects as landmarks and to look for them when they couldn’t see them.

“And they adapted flexibly when food availability became less predictable – although some were clearly faster than others.

“Provided that future studies can replicate and extend these findings to other primate species, naturalistic virtual environments could become a powerful tool to address long-standing questions in the evolution and development of primate navigation that were previously difficult to study in captive and captive environments.” in the wild .”

and dr. Allritz added: “Chimpanzees are humans’ closest living relatives, so understanding how they make travel decisions and how they recognize, remember and reason on itineraries not only helps us understand them better, it’s critical to understanding the evolution of navigational skills in our own species.”

The statement also said: “From a welfare perspective, the chimpanzees can also benefit from the cognitive enrichment that games can provide in the virtual environment, given their creative problem-solving and innovative skills.”

The team plans to make a version of the APExplorer 3D app available on the Open Science Framework so that other researchers can also replicate and adapt their methods to their own research questions.

The study, titled “Chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) navigate to find hidden fruits in a virtual environment,” was published June 24, 2022 in the scientific journal Science Advances.

It was written by Matthias Allritz, Josep Call, Ken Schweller, Emma S. McEwen, Miguel de Guinea, Karline RL Janmaat, Charles R. Menzel, and Francine L. Dolins.

This story was provided to Newsweek by Zenger News

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