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Abstract

Spatial cognition and memory are critical cognitive skills underlying foraging behaviors for all primates. While the emergence of these skills has been the focus of much research on human children, little is known about ontogenetic patterns shaping spatial cognition in other species. Comparative developmental studies of nonhuman apes can illuminate which aspects of human spatial development are shared with other primates, versus which aspects are unique to our lineage. Here we present three studies examining spatial memory development in our closest living relatives, chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) and bonobos (P. paniscus). We first compared memory in a naturalistic foraging task where apes had to recall the location of resources hidden in a large outdoor enclosure with a variety of landmarks (Studies 1 and 2). We then compared older apes using a matched memory choice paradigm (Study 3). We found that chimpanzees exhibited more accurate spatial memory than bonobos across contexts, supporting predictions from these species’ different feeding ecologies. Furthermore, chimpanzees – but not bonobos – showed developmental improvements in spatial memory, indicating that bonobos exhibit cognitive paedomorphism (delays in developmental timing) in their spatial abilities relative to chimpanzees. Together, these results indicate that the development of spatial memory may differ even between closely related species. Moreover, changes in the spatial domain can emerge during nonhuman ape ontogeny, much like some changes seen in human children.