Great Apes Understand When Humans Are Wrong

Buttelmann et al (2017)
Buttelmann et al (2017)

Humans aren’t the only ones who can spot when their friends are about to make a mistake. A new study of chimpanzees, bonobos, and orangutans has found that our great ape cousins can recognize and attempt to correct false beliefs in others—an ability once thought to belong to humans alone. The findings were published in the journal PLOS One.

It’s called Theory of Mind (ToM): the idea that an individual is aware that others have thoughts and feelings different from their own. Because it requires such complex cognitive processing, scientists have long presumed that we’re the only animals that can do it. However, a series of recent studies has called that presumption into question. In 2015, Japanese primatologists created custom horror movies for apes, then observed the apes watching them to see if they could follow the plot. Then in 2016, they made new movies, specially designed to test the apes’ response to watching other apes (actually people in ape costumes) make mistakes.

The movies showed the fake apes being tricked, then having to make a decision based on faulty information. And sure enough, the audience apes’ eyes lingered on the wrong option onscreen, even though they knew where the right option was. They could predict that the actors were about to get it wrong.

The latest experiment takes these discoveries one step farther, by giving apes a chance to help the hapless actor make the right decision. Researchers taught 34 apes to make a simple, rational decision by placing a noisemaker inside one of two locked boxes while the apes were watching. The ape participants were then asked to select the box with the object inside. Next, they set up a little drama. One experimenter would place the object in the box and lock it, then briefly leave the room. While they were gone, another person would come in, remove the object from the first box, place it inside the second box, then exit before the first person returned.

At this point, the ape knew something the experimenter theoretically did not: where the noisemaker was really hidden. When the experimenter came back, they began pretending to try to open the wrong box. More than 75 percent of the time, the apes would reach for, and help them unlock, the right box instead.

In other versions of the drama, where the experimenter watched the sneak switch the object’s location, the apes didn’t seem to care which box the experimenter eventually opened. They knew the experimenter had this handled. The authors say the findings are another strike against the idea that ToM is a human-only phenomenon.

Developmental psychologist Uta Frith was unaffiliated with the research, but told The Guardian that she found it encouraging. “That is very nice because in evolution there is nothing that comes out of the blue from nowhere.”

A Python Swallowed a Crocodile Whole—and a Photographer Was There to Capture It All

KarenHBlack/iStock via Getty Images
KarenHBlack/iStock via Getty Images

As long as it can fit through their elastic jaws, there's not much pythons won't eat. This genus of snakes has been known to swallow everything from small bears to porcupines. As Live Science reports, a python was recently spotted eating a crocodile in Australia—and the disturbing encounter was caught on camera.

On May 31, 2019, the Australian nonprofit GG Wildlife Rescue Inc. shared photos a kayaker named Martin Muller captured of a snake inhaling a crocodile outside Mount Isa in Queensland. The snake was an olive python—a native Australian species that's found exclusively on the continent. Pythons can subdue large prey by wrapping their powerful bodies around it and constricting the animal until it suffocates. Killing a large, aggressive predator like a freshwater crocodile is only half the job. Once its prey is ready to eat, the python opens its jaw, which can stretch several times larger than its head, and gradually consumes its meal, a process that can take hours.

The images below offer a rare look at this brutal act of nature. Muller captured the entire scene, from the python wrangling the croc to the gluttonous feeding that takes place afterwards. The last photos in the series show the python with a large, lumpy bulge in its belly—a sign of its success.

Pythons have been spotted eating crocodiles and alligators in the past, and it doesn't always end well for them. In 2005, a Burmese python in Florida—where they're an invasive species—burst open after trying to swallow an alligator whole. If this python spotted in Australia can stomach its meal, the croc will potentially sustain the snake for months.

[h/t Live Science]

An Underpass for Turtles in Wisconsin Is Saving Dozens of the Little Guys’ Lives

Dmytro Varavin/iStock via Getty Images
Dmytro Varavin/iStock via Getty Images

Why did the turtle cross the road? Because an underground tunnel made it safe to do so.

In 2016, the Wisconsin Departments of Transportation and Natural Resources partnered with the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point to construct a tunnel beneath Highway 66, hoping to cut down on high turtle mortality rates, reports Robert Mentzer for Wisconsin Public Radio.

The tunnel, with Jordan Pond on one side and wetlands on the other, was a noble venture, but the turtles had no way of knowing it was a crossing point rather than a dark and potentially dangerous hole. So Pete Zani, herpetologist and associate professor of biology at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, installed aluminum flashing outside of each opening, which would reflect the sky and let turtles know that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. Zani also installed grates above the tunnel to make it less shadowy, and a small cul-de-sac in a nearby piece of the fencing to encourage turtles who had missed the tunnel to turn around.

Zani and his team found that in the first year after construction, 85 percent fewer turtles were killed on the road, and no baby turtles were among the casualties. In the last few years combined, only 40 turtles died, compared to 66 deaths in 2015 alone.

That’s great news for local turtles, of course, and it’s great news for local humans, too. The intersection in question is always busy with truckers, commuters, and families en route to Jordan Pond, and turtle crossing can exacerbate traffic congestion and increase the chance of accidents.

Not all turtles have caught on, however, and it looks like some might never get the memo. Zani found that about 30 percent of snapping turtles and 20 percent of painted turtles make it through the tunnel, and those numbers have been consistent each year since construction. “They either get it or they don’t,” Zani told Wisconsin Public Radio.

Other animals are getting it, too. As part of the experiment, Zani set up a turtle-wrangling program in which students monitored trail cameras for turtle activity outside the underpass. In photos captured by the cameras, they noticed that rodents, mink, skunks, raccoons, and even house cats were traveling by turtle tunnel.

[h/t Wisconsin Public Radio]

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