Curious gorillas gaze at a caterpillar

by Matthew Cobb

We’ve discussed animal cognition and play a number of times at WEIT, but I don’t think we’ve ever looked at curiosity (perhaps not surprisingly given what it allegedly did to our feline friends). This video from Calgary Zoo shows a couple of gorillas gazing intensely at a caterpillar. A dominant male even shoves the other out of the way to get a better look.

Your questions (write on one side of the paper only):

Does this tell us anything about animal cognition?

Are the gorillas so bored in their enclosure that even a caterpillar distracts them from the tedium of their life?

Are they contemplating the fact that the wriggling larva is apparently able to move through the fence with ease, whereas they remain forever trapped?

Are they curious or are they just looking?

What would happen if the zoo introduced more caterpillars into the enclosure? Would the gorillas simply lose interest?

h/t @TheAtavism

26 Comments

  1. Griff
    Posted October 11, 2012 at 1:43 am | Permalink

    Curiosity about the world. Probably an important evolutionary trait.

    And a beautiful video.

  2. Posted October 11, 2012 at 1:52 am | Permalink

    Is anyone aware of “Richard Byrne’s wonderful research into gorilla memes”? According to David Deutsch, this “has revealed how apes are able to learn useful behaviours from each other without ever understanding what they are for: the explanation of how ape cognition works really is behaviouristic.”

    I wonder how this behaviour would be interpreted in the context of Byrne’s research?

    /@

    • jose
      Posted October 11, 2012 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

      How did he determine the gorillas don’t understand what they’re doing? o_O

      Also, the artificial intelligence part is shaky. Yes, it’s possible, but that doesn’t mean it’s possible with out current turing-machine-based style of computing. Intelligence simply doesn’t work like that, and the pros of artificial intelligence went for other ways to create useful stuff a long time ago. Nobody right now is working to “emulate the mind” like the first folks in the field dreamed. A fundamental change in how to compute is needed first.

      • Posted October 12, 2012 at 5:10 am | Permalink

        I don’t know! That’s why I asked if anyone was familiar with his work!

        (I wasn’t really intending to prompt a discussion of Deutsch’s views on AGI …)

        /@

  3. Dominic
    Posted October 11, 2012 at 2:37 am | Permalink

    OK – the gorilla in the wild would have encountered insects from a very early age so they would have no novelty. Novelty & how animals exploit it is a key element of survival. There is room within any population for a mixture of curiosity & caution, particularly with the – pardon the expression – more ‘advanced’ animals like ourselves. Hairy caterpillars are not going to be tasty as we all know due to their urticating hairs, so perhaps they know that? Anyway, without curiosity animals would not investigate or exploit new food sources, so they will be stimulated to foodish interest but put off by the non-edibility so they just watch.
    Perhaps…

    • Dominic
      Posted October 11, 2012 at 2:51 am | Permalink

      Forgot to say – less novelty stuck in an enclosure with an impoverished ecology. But I do the same thing when I see an insect…

      • JohnnieCanuck
        Posted October 11, 2012 at 3:46 am | Permalink

        Makes two of us. This afternoon I spent half an hour enjoying an inchworm caterpillar that had positioned itself on the armrest on my car door. It had probably gotten inside the car on some garden plants I had transported earlier.

        The fun part was that it was patterned to resemble a mottled dead brown twig and was maintaining most of its body at a 45° angle to the armrest. This would have been a great camouflage technique if the armrest hadn’t been grey. The better part of the time I spent with it was in trying to get a good close-up photo of it.

        I had never observed one position itself like this before, though who knows how many I might have overlooked.

        • Dominic
          Posted October 11, 2012 at 6:13 am | Permalink

          Send Jerry the photo & maybe he can put it up sometime…

  4. marksolock
    Posted October 11, 2012 at 4:56 am | Permalink

    Reblogged this on Mark Solock Blog.

  5. John K.
    Posted October 11, 2012 at 5:43 am | Permalink

    The questions are very subjective. I have no idea how to even begin assessing the boredom levels of gorillas, other than trying to empathize with them (which seems wholly inadequate). If we cannot communicate with them, how could we ever determine if they are envious of the caterpillar’s freedom? How could we know if they even understand such a thing?

    It makes a certain amount of sense for cognitive creatures to take special notice of less common things in their environment, after all changes and new things have a good chance of being important to survival. Even with that sentiment, however, I only have a just-so story that I cannot verify.

    I suspect the questions posed have no real answers, but perhaps that is why they were asked.

    • Dominic
      Posted October 11, 2012 at 6:15 am | Permalink

      For gorilla substitute pre-language child. Does that make a difference as to how we regard this problem?

      • John K.
        Posted October 11, 2012 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

        It makes a lot more sense for a human to be able to empathize with another human, even of very different ages. Cross species empathy becomes very dubious.

        I would assert that we are similarly unable to answer if a pre-language child gazing out of a crib is envious of a caterpillar’s freedom. It is very much like the question of what newborns dream about, we have no way to verify answers to such questions and cannot reasonably think we have any kind of real answer. We can only speculate.

    • Matthew Cobb
      Posted October 11, 2012 at 6:40 am | Permalink

      Questions that don’t have an answer are the only really interesting questions, I think. Outlining the shape of our ignorance is the starting point for new knowledge.

  6. Steve N
    Posted October 11, 2012 at 5:57 am | Permalink

    I can’t help but feel some irony at caged gorillas watching an insect being watched by people all over the world on computer screens.

  7. Posted October 11, 2012 at 6:08 am | Permalink

    I’d say that they are indeed curious, and perhaps hungry. They do not understand something, it is out of their normal experience so it is new and worthy of attention.

    This is not to say that all primates are curious. Many theist members of the branch called human are unable to muster that.

  8. Mike
    Posted October 11, 2012 at 7:21 am | Permalink

    Was the camera there before they started watching the caterpillar? Otherwise, they might have been attracted by the fact that one of the “unhaired beings” was looking at a caterpillar on their fence :-p

  9. TrineBM
    Posted October 11, 2012 at 7:43 am | Permalink

    They are curious, but I wonder why they don’t “look” with their fingers. I think a human child would have been poking that caterpillar within seconds. Probably to the detriment of the caterpillar.
    As always when discussing animal behaviour I refer to herd and prey animals/horses, since that is what I know best.
    Ages ago I read about some tests done in a field with domesticated horses. The horses were let out in a field they knew well, and the only thing different from their normal routine was, that there was a big carpet placed in the middle of the field. The horses snorted at it, and then went on to investigate. After a short while they ignored the carpet and even used it as a manure-depot. The next day the carpet was there again, but now with a ballon under it. The experimenters could inflate/deflate the ballon from a distance and did so at irregular intervals. The horses never got over the fun! At first it was snort-buck-flee in fright. But after a while the thing was apparently turned into a game by the more playful individuals and just avoided by the more sedate members of the herd. Curious – yes and playful.
    I’ve ridden several horses with a distinct curiosity. That type of individual will maybe flee for a few meters if surprised, but will then turn around with flaring nostrils and ears pricked, ready to either attack/play or flee again. If nothing changes they will approach and act curious.

    • Posted October 11, 2012 at 11:39 am | Permalink

      excellentn story about the horses. Mine also did that when I was a girl. Snort fuss, and then tear away only to come back, necks all stretched out to get a look.

  10. Posted October 11, 2012 at 7:55 am | Permalink

    “They are curious, but I wonder why they don’t “look” with their fingers. I think a human child would have been poking that caterpillar within seconds. Probably to the detriment of the caterpillar.”

    To me this says that the gorillas recognize it as alive, but do not have a desire to find out if it tastes good. I see similar behavior in my dog. He will sniff at animate objects but only follow inanimate objects.

    I imagine the gorillas were attempting to find the face on the caterpillar when they leaned close to it.

    Imagine you saw an 8+ inch ‘worm’ on your porch but were not sure if it was a snake, what exactly would be your reactions to it? How would you investigate such a creature?

    • TrineBM
      Posted October 11, 2012 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

      You’re of course right about the hesitation to touch anything until experience tells you it’s not dangerous. But I can still see many a toddler just poking … just a little … to experiment.
      I’m aware that these gorillas are neither toddlers nor human, but the kind of curious interest they show reminds me of the way a toddler examines things. With a curious, investigating outlook on all things be they alive or not.
      These gorillas are probably a lot wiser than most human toddlers and therefore keep their fingers to themselves.

  11. Posted October 11, 2012 at 8:17 am | Permalink

    Your questions (write on one side of the paper only):

    Does this tell us anything about animal cognition?

    Yes.

    Are the gorillas so bored in their enclosure that even a caterpillar distracts them from the tedium of their life?

    Yes.

    Are they contemplating the fact that the wriggling larva is apparently able to move through the fence with ease, whereas they remain forever trapped?

    Yes.

    Are they curious or are they just looking?

    Yes.

    What would happen if the zoo introduced more caterpillars into the enclosure?

    Yes.

    Would the gorillas simply lose interest?

    Yes.

    Cheers,

    b&

    • Matthew Cobb
      Posted October 11, 2012 at 8:47 am | Permalink

      I’m afraid you’ve failed, Ben. The answers were of course “No”, throughout.

      • Posted October 11, 2012 at 9:24 am | Permalink

        Then you must have asked the worng questions, as I’m quite certain my answers are right!

        b&

      • The Stolen Dormouse
        Posted October 11, 2012 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

        The answer to “Are they curious or are they just looking?” is logically Yes if at least one clause is true; otherwise it is No. Be careful how you dip your “or”s into a question.

  12. suwise3
    Posted October 11, 2012 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

    On a dare, the caterpillars pushed some marijuana leaves into the gorilla enclosure, waited until they had consumed them, then chose one of their own to make it all the way past the gorillas.

  13. Marella
    Posted October 11, 2012 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

    Yes they are curious. Yes the caterpillar is a distraction from boredom, no they are not contemplating the freedom of the caterpillar, no they are not just looking, and yes if the zoo introduced more caterpillars to the enclosure they would get used to them.

    Also the reason they don’t touch it is that it’s extremely hairy and moves quite fast. Well, both of these would put me off anyway.


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  1. […] still makes me pause. I also love how the dominant gorilla gently pushes the other one away. Hehe. Gorillas watching a caterpillar Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this. This entry was posted in Weird […]

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