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Means-means-end tool choice in cotton-top tamarins (Saguinus oedipus): finding the limits on primates’ knowledge of tools

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Most studies of animal tool use require subjects to use one object to gain access to a food reward. In many real world situations, however, animals perform more than one action in sequence to achieve their goals. Of theoretical interest is whether animals have the cognitive capacity to recognize the relationship between consecutive action sequences in which there may be one overall goal and several subgoals. Here we ask if cotton-top tamarins, a species that in captivity uses tools to solve means-end problems, can go one step further and use a sequence of tools (means) to obtain food (end). We first trained subjects to use a pulling tool to obtain a food reward. After this initial training, subjects were presented with problems in which one tool had to be used in combination with a second in order to obtain food. Subjects showed great difficulty when two tools were required to obtain the food reward. Although subjects attended to the connection between the tool and food reward, they ignored the physical connection between the two tools. After training on a two-tool problem, we presented subjects with a series of transfer tests to explore if they would generalize to new types of connections between the tools. Subjects readily transferred to new connections. Our results therefore provide the first evidence to date that tamarins can learn to solve problems involving two tools, but that they do so only with sufficient training.

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The authors wish to thank Sebastien Fournier and Daniel Schaffer for their help running these studies. This research was approved by the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (USA) of Harvard University (Animal Research Protocol no. 92-16, approved 11/13/02). All of this research conforms to federal guidelines for use of animals in research. L.R.S. was supported by an NSF Predoctoral Fellowship and Yale University. M.D.H. was supported by the NSF (SBR-9357976), the NEPRC (PHS-P51RR00168-37) and Harvard University

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Correspondence to Laurie R. Santos.

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Santos, L.R., Rosati, A., Sproul, C. et al. Means-means-end tool choice in cotton-top tamarins (Saguinus oedipus): finding the limits on primates’ knowledge of tools. Anim Cogn 8, 236–246 (2005).

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