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Orangutan Learning Tree Opens at Zoo Atlanta

In April 12, 2007, in front of a line of news cameras and a crowd of curious visitors, Zoo Atlanta officially opened the much anticipated Orangutan Learning Tree made possible with funding from a Center for Behavioral Neuroscience venture grant, the IBM Corporation, and an anonymous donor. Already, news media from around the world, including the BBC and Good Morning America, have contacted the zoo to learn more about this exciting partnership endeavor.

Dr. Tara Stoinski, a CBN faculty member and scientist for Zoo Atlanta and the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, plans to use the tree to learn more about the orangutan’s cognitive processes.

“Today there are only 37,000 orangutans in the wild, and understanding their cognitive processes will help us to understand what they need to survive in the wild,” Stoinski said.

The Orangutan Learning Tree houses a large touch-screen computer built to be flush with the tree’s outer surface. The orangutans, which have already been trained to use the computers for cognitive tasks behind the scenes, will now be able to perform cognitive tasks on the computer screen out in the open where visitors to the zoo can watch, said Kelly Powell, CBN Associate Director.

During regular hours, the zoo will feature live demonstrations of the orangutans using the touch-screen to complete various cognitive tasks including facial matching-to-sample. The orangutans are rewarded with food for successful completion of each trial. Some of the computer tasks were developed by CBN Graduate Scholar, Ben Basile, of Dr. Robert Hampton’s lab (Yerkes National Primate Research Center, Emory University) who is already collaborating with Dr. Stoinski using the new Orangutan Learning Tree. Zoo visitors will be able to witness the orangutans performance on each task on a screen near the front of the habitat.

“Zoo visitors will also be able to compare their own cognitive abilities with the orangutans by completing the same cognitive tasks on another computer touch-screen station located in the observation area beside the orangutan exhibit.” Dr. Powell said. This station will also provide visitors basic information about each of the orangutans in the zoo’s collection, as well as information about the challenges this species face in the wild.


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