Professor presents studies on chimpanzee intellegence

Lindsey Reed

After working with chimpanzees for 30 years, Sally Boysen said she is still learning new things about them.

She has seen them mock human behavior and learn new concepts. And like human children, they misbehave.

“Every day something happens, and I think it’s unbelievable,” Boysen said.

Boysen is a psychology professor at Ohio State University. She established the Ohio State University Chimpanzee Center, a facility dedicated to studying chimpanzee cognition, in 1983.

On Thursday night she presented some of her research during “Inside the Mind of the Chimpanzee,” a program on chimpanzee intelligence, at Van Meter Auditorium.

She talked about one study on chimpanzee number comprehension. She discovered that chimpanzees can count, but they have trouble understanding mass.

Boysen presented the chimpanzees with two bowls filled with different amounts of candy. She said the chimps were not able to choose the bowl with the larger amount of candy unless the bowls were labeled with written numbers.

“Children as young as three learn about numbers, and the chimps had done the same thing,” she said.

Boysen also discussed a vocalization study where she recorded noises the chimpanzees made when they were offered certain foods.

She found rapid vocalizations were a sign of better food quality. Grapes were their favorite, and lettuce was least preferred among the foods offered.

To complete her study, Boysen replayed the sounds to the chimpanzees and had them match the sounds to the corresponding foods.

Boysen said chimpanzees are “opportunist omnivores” because, like humans, they’ll pick sweets over healthy foods when they can.

“They’ll pick a fudgesicle over a carrot any day,” she said.

Boysen also talked about particular chimpanzees and how they uniquely responded to some studies.

One of the chimpanzees, Sheba, performed well in most of Boysen’s studies but had trouble matching the vocalizations with the correct foods.

“Sheba would rather not answer than be wrong,” Boysen said.

Boysen likes all of her 11 chimpanzees, but she said Darrell is one of her favorites.

“Darrell is the only one of the eleven that gets depressed when I’m gone,” she said.

The idea of chimpanzee intelligence sparked enthusiasm in the Bowling Green community, and many Western students attended the presentation.

“I saw her program on TV before,” said Shwu-Jing Jeng, a junior from Ping Tung City, Taiwan.

Jeng watched one of Boysen’s programs on the Discovery Channel.

Bowling Green graduate student Sherry Cockrill said she went to the lecture because she was interested in how people and organisms develop differently.

“I think it’s a good topic because everybody learns in different ways,” Cockrill said.

Thursday night’s lecture was a part of the Boyd-Lubker Visiting Scholar Program, funded by Dr. Bobbie Boyd-Lubker and her husband, Dr. John Lynn Lubker.

Boysen said she hoped people realized humans are not the only intelligent beings.

In fact, she said, humans and chimpanzees are made up of 99 percent of the same genetic matter.

“I hope they have a better appreciation that there is another species that has capacity…We are not alone,” she said. “It’s important for us to understand where we came from.”

Reach Lindsey Reed at [email protected]