, Volume 13, Issue 2, pp 331-340,
Open Access This content is freely available online to anyone, anywhere at any time.
Date: 27 Sep 2009

Keeping track of time: evidence for episodic-like memory in great apes


Episodic memory, as defined by Tulving, can be described in terms of behavioural elements (what, where and when information) but it is also accompained by an awareness of one’s past (chronesthesia) and a subjective conscious experience (autonoetic awareness). Recent experiments have shown that corvids and rodents recall the where, what and when of an event. This capability has been called episodic-like memory because it only fulfils the behavioural criteria for episodic memory. We tested seven chimpanzees, three orangutans and two bonobos of various ages by adapting two paradigms, originally developed by Clayton and colleagues to test scrub jays. In Experiment 1, subjects were fed preferred but perishable food (frozen juice) and less preferred but non-perishable food (grape). After the food items were hidden, subjects could choose one of them either after 5 min or 1 h. The frozen juice was still available after 5 min but melted after 1 h and became unobtainable. Apes chose the frozen juice significantly more after 5 min and the grape after 1 h. In Experiment 2, subjects faced two baiting events happening at different times, yet they formed an integrated memory for the location and time of the baiting event for particular food items. We also included a memory task that required no temporal encoding. Our results showed that apes remember in an integrated fashion what, where and when (i.e., how long ago) an event happened; that is, apes distinguished between different events in which the same food items were hidden in different places at different times. The temporal control of their choices was not dependent on the familiarity of the platforms where the food was hidden. Chimpanzees’ and bonobos’ performance in the temporal encoding task was age-dependent, following an inverted U-shaped distribution. The age had no effect on the performance of the subjects in the task that required no temporal encoding.