Orangutans Can Reminisce

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Orangutans Are the Only Non-Human Primates Capable of ‘Talking’ About the Past

by Meilan Solly Smithsonian.com

One of the most distinguishing features of human speech is displaced reference, or the ability to discuss objects and events not physically present at a given time. Although we tend to take this phenomenon for granted, it’s actually quite an impressive feat—for perspective, imagine your pet dog regaling a neighborhood pal with tales of a recent trip to the park by drawing on memories of long-gone ball throws and belly rubs.

Researchers have long believed displaced reference is unique to humans, but as Virginia Morell reports for Science magazine, a new study led by researchers from Scotland’s University of St. Andrews suggests orangutans can “talk” about the past, too.

The team’s findings, published in the journal Science Advances, revolve around seven orangutan mothers tricked into thinking they’d spotted potential predators, which were actually the two scientists, Adriano Reis e Lameira and Josep Call, draped in sheets featuring tiger stripes, spotted patterns and various colors. Over the course of 24 simulated exposures, Lameira and Call recorded 12 instances of mothers shouting warnings to their babies and 12 instances of no shouting at all.

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