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Using virtual reality to investigate comparative spatial cognitive abilities in chimpanzees and humans


  • Francine Dolins dedicates this paper to Merry, Brandy, and Domani, and to the memory of her good friend, Alan Cowey.


The purpose of the present study was to determine the efficacy of investigating spatial cognitive abilities across two primate species using virtual reality. In this study, we presented four captive adult chimpanzees and 16 humans (12 children and 4 adults) with simulated environments of increasing complexity and size to compare species' attention to visuo-spatial features during navigation. The specific task required participants to attend to landmarks in navigating along routes in order to localize the goal site. Both species were found to discriminate effectively between positive and negative landmarks. Assessing path efficiency revealed that both species and all age groups used relatively efficient, distance reducing routes during navigation. Compared to the chimpanzees and adult humans however, younger children's performance decreased as maze complexity and size increased. Surprisingly, in the most complex maze category the humans' performance was less accurate compared to one female chimpanzee. These results suggest that the method of using virtual reality to test captive primates, and in particular, chimpanzees, affords significant cross-species investigations of spatial cognitive and developmental comparisons. Am. J. Primatol. 76:496–513, 2014. © 2014 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.