Animal Cognition

, Volume 11, Issue 2, pp 223–230 | Cite as

Spontaneous performance of wild baboons on three novel food-access puzzles

  • Mark E. LaidreEmail author
Original Paper


Although the technical problem-solving expertise of nonhuman primates has been investigated extensively in captivity, few species have been tested in their natural habitats. Here I examine the physical cognition of wild savanna baboons (Papio anubis), a species that occupies an omnivorous foraging niche in which a variety of embedded food items are extracted and processed. Baboons were tested on three puzzles, each involving high-quality food that required removal from a novel obstruction: (1) a string-pulling puzzle in which food was hung from tree branches, (2) a twig-dipping puzzle in which food was embedded in a vertical tube, and (3) a stick-pushing puzzle in which food was contained in a horizontal conduit. The baboons failed to solve the second and third puzzles even when tools had been appropriately positioned in advance. And although they solved the first puzzle, their actions (running while holding food that was still attached to the string), suggested they did not fully comprehend the string’s connective property. The baboons’ performance might reflect the time constraints of life in the wild, which relative to captivity may provide fewer opportunities for the development of understanding about the physical properties of objects and their potential uses as tools. Further experiments on the physical cognition of baboons and many other primate species in their natural habitats would help test this ontogenetic hypothesis. Such field experiments would be especially fruitful if they continued to target extractive foragers like baboons: these experiments could simultaneously provide a test of phylogenetic hypotheses that invoke extractive foraging as the key stimulus for brain expansion in savanna-dwelling hominids.


Technical intelligence Problem solving Field experiments Cognitive development Evolutionary origins 



I thank Raphael Eiyanae Erengai for assistance and genial companionship in the field, and the Mpala Research Centre for allowing me to carry out this study, especially Nick Georgiadis and Chris Odhiambo. I am indebted to Sango Leleshu for making the string-pulling experiment a reality, Christie Riehl for serendipitously supplying the string, Philip Muruthi for expert discussion during a visit to the field, and Dan Rubenstein for loaning video equipment and binoculars. Stuart Altmann, Tatiana Czeschlik, Jonathan Flombaum, Jim Gould, Robert Seyfarth, and the anonymous referees provided helpful comments on the manuscript. The experiments comply with the current laws of the country (Kenya) in which they were performed. Supported by a grant from the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship.

Supplementary material

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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2007

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, and Program in NeurosciencePrinceton UniversityPrincetonUSA

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