Understanding the functional properties of tools: chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) and capuchin monkeys (Cebus apella) attend to tool features differently


We examined whether eight capuchins and eight chimpanzees were able to retrieve a reward placed inside a tube, of varying length, by selecting the correct stick from different sets of three sticks differing in length (functional feature) and handle (non-functional feature). Moreover, to investigate whether seeing the stick inside the tube (visual feedback) improves performance, half of the subjects were tested with a transparent apparatus and the other half with an opaque apparatus. Phase 1 included (a) Training 1 in which each stick had a different handle and (b) Transfer 1 in which the handles were switched among sticks, so that the functional tool had the same length but a different handle than before. The seven chimpanzees and one capuchin that passed Transfer 1 received Transfer 2. The other subjects received (a) Training 2, which used the same sticks from Phase 1 with handles switched in every trial, and (b) Transfer 2 in which the tube was longer, all sticks had the same new handle, and the formerly longest tool became intermediate in length. Eight chimpanzees and three capuchins passed Transfer 2. Results showed that (1) chimpanzees applied relational structures in tool using tasks more quickly than capuchins and (2) capuchins required more varied experience to attend to the functional feature of the tool. Interestingly, visual feedback did not improve performance in either species.

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This research was supported by the EC ANALOGY grant #29088 and by the CNR Short-term Mobility Program 2009. We wish to thank Luigi Fidanza and Raik Pieszek for technical help with the apparatus and tools and the keepers of the Primate Center of ISTC-CNR in Rome and those of Wolfgang Köhler Primate Research Center in Leipzig for help with animal testing. We acknowledge Prof. Boicho Kokinov, Prof. Sabina Pauen, Sabrina Bechtel, Prof. Stephen Lea, and two anonymous reviewers for thoughtful and helpful suggestions and comments. We thank the Fondazione Bioparco and Leipzig Zoo for hosting the Primate Centres where the experiments were carried out. We thank Kelly Reina for improving the English of the manuscript. We declare that the experiments performed in our study comply with Italian and German current laws regulating animal care and use.

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Correspondence to Gloria Sabbatini.

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Sabbatini, G., Truppa, V., Hribar, A. et al. Understanding the functional properties of tools: chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) and capuchin monkeys (Cebus apella) attend to tool features differently. Anim Cogn 15, 577–590 (2012).

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  • Tool use
  • Functional features
  • Relational rules
  • Visual feedback
  • Primates