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A sex difference in effect of prior experience on object-mediated problem-solving in gibbons


Understanding the functionally relevant properties of objects is likely facilitated by learning with a critical role for past experience. However, current evidence is conflicting regarding the effect of prior object exposure on acquisition of object manipulation skills. This may be due to the influence of life history variables on the capacity to benefit from such experience. This study assessed effect of task-relevant object exposure on object-mediated problem-solving in 22 gibbons using a raking-in task. Despite not using tools habitually, 14 gibbons spontaneously used a rake to obtain a reward. Having prior experience with the rake in an unrewarded context did not improve learning efficiency in males. However, females benefitted significantly from the opportunity to interact with the rake before testing, with reduced latencies to solution compared to those with no previous exposure. These results reflect potential sex differences in approach to novelty that moderate the possible benefits of prior experience. Due to their relatively high energetic requirements, reproductively active females may be highly motivated to explore potential resources; however, increased investment in developing offspring could make them more guarded in their investigations. Previous exposure that allows females to learn of an object’s neutrality can offset this cautious exploration.

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Many thanks to the University of Stirling Research Committee for funding and to the primate care staff at the Gibbon Conservation Center.

Ethical note

This study was carried put in accordance with the ethical policies of the University of Stirling and the Gibbon Conservation Center and in compliance with the current laws governing non-invasive animal research of both the UK and USA.

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Correspondence to Clare Cunningham.

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Cunningham, C., Anderson, J. & Mootnick, A. A sex difference in effect of prior experience on object-mediated problem-solving in gibbons. Anim Cogn 14, 599–605 (2011).

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