A new relationship with animals, nature and each other.

Chimps Are Smart and Altruistic


Are you, as the saying goes, smarter than a fifth-grader? Then how about a teenage chimp?

Ayumu (photo above), who lives at Kyoto University in Japan, is back in the news for his ability to remember the location and order of a set of numbers in less time than it take you to blink – 30 milliseconds, to be precise.

Now 11 years old, Ayumu is a classic prodigy. He hit the science headlines five years ago when he outclassed the very scientists who’d set him his tests. Today he’s performing feats of memory that humans find impossible. You see his most remarkable feat when a series of numbers, one to nine, are thrown up randomly on a screen for less than half a second and are then covered up. Can you uncover them in their correct order? Watch him in action at age five. Better yet, pause the video as soon as the numbers disappear and see if you can do the test:

Back in 2007, Japanese researchers pitted young chimps against college students in two tests of short-term memory. Overall, the chimps won.

When the numbers were displayed for about seven-tenths of a second, Ayumu and the students were both able to do this correctly about 80 percent of the time. But when the numbers were displayed for just four-tenths or two-tenths of a second, the chimp was the clear champ. Ayumu still scored about 80 percent, while the humans dropped to 40 percent.

The researchers explained that this means Ayumu is better at taking in the whole pattern of numbers at a glance.

“It’s unbelievable,” said Elizabeth Lonsdorf, director of the Lester E. Fisher Center for the Study and Conservation of Apes in Chicago. “I can’t even get the first two (squares).”

How does he do it? Scientists aren’t sure but they have two theories. One relates to “eidetic imagery”, the ability to commit to memory a complete picture of intricate pattern or scene. The other is called subatizing – the ability to look at a small number of items and automatically know how many of each are present. Chimps retain this information better than humans. Why? Perhaps because as we humans acquired new skills like speech, we lost others that chimps retained and improved upon.

Ayumu will be featured on the BBC/Discovery’s Super Smart Animals.