What cognitive strategies do orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus) use to solve a trial-unique puzzle-tube task incorporating multiple obstacles?


Apparently sophisticated behaviour during problem-solving is often the product of simple underlying mechanisms, such as associative learning or the use of procedural rules. These and other more parsimonious explanations need to be eliminated before higher-level cognitive processes such as causal reasoning or planning can be inferred. We presented three Bornean orangutans with 64 trial-unique configurations of a puzzle-tube to investigate whether they were able to consider multiple obstacles in two alternative paths, and subsequently choose the correct direction in which to move a reward in order to retrieve it. We were particularly interested in how subjects attempted to solve the task, namely which behavioural strategies they could have been using, as this is how we may begin to elucidate the cognitive mechanisms underpinning their choices. To explore this, we simulated performance outcomes across the 64 trials for various procedural rules and rule combinations that subjects may have been using based on the configuration of different obstacles. Two of the three subjects solved the task, suggesting that they were able to consider at least some of the obstacles in the puzzle-tube before executing action to retrieve the reward. This is impressive compared with the past performances of great apes on similar, arguably less complex tasks. Successful subjects may have been using a heuristic rule combination based on what they deemed to be the most relevant cue (the configuration of the puzzle-tube ends), which may be a cognitively economical strategy.

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    It should be noted that this does not necessarily imply any sort of phenomenal consciousness; that is, the subjective ‘feel’ of an experience (Carruthers 1998).

  2. 2.

    Chevalier-Skolnikoff et al. (1982) actually use the term ‘insightful solution’ to describe tree sway behaviour, which is problematic for reasons described by Kacelnik (2009).


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We thank Apenheul Primate Park (Netherlands) for granting permission for scientific research and generously giving their time, support and valuable knowledge. Special thanks go to Rudy Berends, Leo Hulsker, Bianca Klein and Frank Rietkerk. We are also grateful to four anonymous reviewers whose comments contributed to the improvement of this manuscript. This study was funded by a Natural Environment Research Council studentship to E.C.T.

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Ethical standards

The experiments reported here comply with the current laws of the country (Netherlands) in which they were performed.

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Correspondence to Emma C. Tecwyn.

Additional information

Susannah K. S. Thorpe and Jackie Chappell were Joint senior authors.

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Tecwyn, E.C., Thorpe, S.K.S. & Chappell, J. What cognitive strategies do orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus) use to solve a trial-unique puzzle-tube task incorporating multiple obstacles?. Anim Cogn 15, 121–133 (2012) doi:10.1007/s10071-011-0438-x

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  • Orangutan
  • Great ape
  • Problem-solving
  • Planning
  • Cognitive strategies
  • Trap-tube