, Volume 10, Issue 3, pp 357-367
Date: 29 Mar 2007

What wild primates know about resources: opening up the black box

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Abstract

We present the theoretical and practical difficulties of inferring the cognitive processes involved in spatial movement decisions of primates and other animals based on studies of their foraging behavior in the wild. Because the possible cognitive processes involved in foraging are not known a priori for a given species, some observed spatial movements could be consistent with a large number of processes ranging from simple undirected search processes to strategic goal-oriented travel. Two basic approaches can help to reveal the cognitive processes: (1) experiments designed to test specific mechanisms; (2) comparison of observed movements with predicted ones based on models of hypothesized foraging modes (ideally, quantitative ones). We describe how these two approaches have been applied to evidence for spatial knowledge of resources in primates, and for various hypothesized goals of spatial decisions in primates, reviewing what is now established. We conclude with a synthesis emphasizing what kinds of spatial movement data on unmanipulated primate populations in the wild are most useful in deciphering goal-oriented processes from random processes. Basic to all of these is an estimate of the animal’s ability to detect resources during search. Given knowledge of the animal’s detection ability, there are several observable patterns of resource use incompatible with a pure search process. These patterns include increasing movement speed when approaching versus leaving a resource, increasingly directed movement toward more valuable resources, and directed travel to distant resources from many starting locations. Thus, it should be possible to assess and compare spatial cognition across a variety of primate species and thus trace its ecological and evolutionary correlates.

This contribution is part of the special issue “A Socioecological Perspective on Primate Cognition” (Cunningham and Janson 2007b)