Chimpanzees master virtual reality to find hidden fruits
Chimpanzees can navigate a computerized world to find virtual fruit, according to new research from the University of St Andrews.
Using touchscreen technology, six primates from Leipzig Zoo, Germany, learned to navigate to a remote virtual tree with different types of fruit underneath, and even find the landmark from from different starting points.
Led by Dr Matthias Allritz and Dr Josep Call from the University of St Andrews School of Biology and Dr Francine Dolins from the University of Michigan-Dearborn, the work is the first empirical study of how chimpanzees navigate in an open, naturalistic, virtual environment and demonstrates that chimpanzee maneuvers in the virtual world share several key characteristics with real navigation.
The results also suggest that virtual environment technology can be used to answer long-standing questions in the study of primate space and other forms of cognition.
Dr Matthias Allritz, 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 restrictions in zoos, experimental study of spatial cognition in non-human primates is notoriously difficult. Using virtual environments allows researchers to create large-scale controllable environments for primate participants to navigate, including completely new environments.
“Beyond the clear goal orientation in chimpanzee spatial learning, one thing that stood out to us was the remarkable speed at which chimpanzees learned to control the virtual agent and perform spatial tasks. It required less training than I originally thought, and certainly less than most more traditional tactile tasks designed for animals.
Three adult male and three adult female chimpanzees from the Wolfgang Köhler Primate Research Center (WKPRC) at Zoo Leipzig, Germany, participated in the study. All six chimpanzees had prior experience using touch screens, and five of them had limited experience with 3D video games when the study began. All participation was voluntary and all testing was done in the familiar great ape testing areas at WKPRC, where they have regular access to touchscreen tasks.
A new custom virtual reality (VR) application – APExplorer 3D – was created for the study, presenting primates with a virtual environment through which an unseen first-person character could be directed to explore and interact with objects in a three-dimensional cartoon. style.
Using a touch screen, the chimpanzees guided the virtual agent through an open space containing grassy hills, trees, rocks and other obstacles. For a month, the chimpanzees were challenged with increasingly difficult navigational tasks, exhibiting several cognitive processes and behavioral signatures in the virtual environment that were predicted to guide navigation in the wild, such as learning to recognize and search for distinct landmarks and optimize route efficiency.
Dr Francine Dolins, Principal Investigator and Associate Professor at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, said: “Tracking the navigation of primates in the wild presents many challenges, including not knowing what landmark information they use as a basis for making spatial decisions. Virtual reality offers greater control over the featured landmarks and their location compared to virtual foraging sites, for example a fruit tree.
Professor Josep Call, Co-Principal Investigator, added: “Our study shows that non-invasive experiments in open-space virtual environments have great potential for studying primate spatial cognition. The chimpanzees in our study quickly learned the basic mechanics of play and quickly exhibited learning and decision-making patterns that resembled actual navigation. They learned to recognize certain objects as landmarks and to orient and search for them when they could not see them. And they adapted flexibly when food availability became less predictable – although some of them were significantly faster than others.
“Provided that future studies can replicate and extend these findings to other primate species, naturalistic virtual environments can become a powerful tool to answer long-standing questions about the evolution and development of primate navigation. which were previously difficult to study in captive environments and in the wild. .”
Dr Allritz added: “Chimpanzees are the closest living relatives of humans, so understanding how they make travel decisions and how they recognize, remember and reason about travel routes not only helps us understand them better. , it is also essential to understand evolution. navigation skills in our own species.
From a welfare perspective, chimpanzees may also benefit from the cognitive enrichment that games in a virtual environment can provide, given their creative problem-solving and innovative abilities.
To facilitate wider adoption of virtual reality (VR) research, the team plans to make a version of the APExplorer 3D application available on the Open Science Framework, allowing other researchers to directly replicate these methods and adapt them to related research questions.
The research was supported by the Templeton World Charity Foundation, the University of Michigan-Dearborn and the University of St Andrews.