The Cleverness Of The Apes (GALLERY)

Evidence for ape intelligence got a major boost in the 1960s in Gombe, Tanzania, when Jane Goodall observed chimpanzees using a twig to "fish" for ants—the first documentation of wild chimps making and using tools. Until then, toolmaking had been considered a uniquely human ability. Photo credit: National Geographic/Michael Nichols

(GREAT APES/ANIMAL SCIENCE) In “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” experiments with genetic engineering lead to an incredibly intelligent species of ape. In reality, these non-human primates are in fact very smart and have better, faster memories than we do. Check out these pictures documenting milestones in great ape intelligence: Chimpanzees make and use tools, gorillas use sign language, bonobos understand spoken language and syntax, orangutans communicate by attaching meaning to arbitrary symbols and making logical, thoughtful choices, and more. — Global Animal

National Geographic, Christine Dell’Amore

The supersmart chimpanzees of the new movie Rise of the Planet of the Apes may exist only on the silver screen — but in real life, great apes are still brainiacs of the animal kingdom.

Evidence for ape intelligence got a major boost in the 1960s in Gombe, Tanzania, when Jane Goodall observed chimpanzees using a twig to "fish" for ants—the first documentation of wild chimps making and using tools. Until then, toolmaking had been considered a uniquely human ability. Photo credit: National Geographic/Michael Nichols

The “notion is [tool use] requires higher intelligence, because it requires refashioning what nature has provided to achieve the user’s goal,” Anne Russon, an expert in ape intelligence at Canada’s York University, said via email.

Since the toolmaking discovery, scientists have discovered our closest cousins can use sign language, hunt with spears of their own making, and even beat college students in basic memory tests, among other skills.

Francine "Penny" Patterson (left), using American Sign Language, asks the gorilla Koko if she is hungry on May 21, 1976. Koko is responding that she is. Photo credit: Bettmann/Corbis

Koko, a lowland gorilla born in 1971, is currently the most language-proficient nonhuman, according to the Gorilla Foundation, which teaches ASL to gorillas.

The gorilla has a vocabulary of more than a thousand signs, understands about 2,000 words of spoken English, and initiates most conversations with people, according to the foundation’s website.

Her IQ is between 70 and 95 on a human scale—100 is considered a “normal” human IQ.

“Great apes have [language] skills that are similar to small children,” Thomas Breuer, an ape researcher with the Wildlife Conservation Society in the Republic of the Congo, said by email.

Added York University’s Russon: “The great leap forward was using manual signs rather than vocal sounds for language—important because great apes don’t have the same control over sound creation as humans do.”

Researcher Sue Savage-Rumbaugh hugs Kanzi, star pupil of the Language Research Center in Atlanta, after the bonobo scored excellent results on a language comprehension and syntax quiz. Photo credit: National Geographic/Michael Nichols

Kanzi, born in 1980, is “the world’s undisputed ape-language superstar,” according to the website of the Great Ape Trust, a research facility in Iowa that studies ape language and intelligence.

That’s because he was the first ape to acquire language as children do: by being exposed to it.

Kanzi is also the first ape to show receptive understanding of spoken English and excels in research using novel sentences—phrases that require the learning of specific responses, the website said.

Syntax is more difficult to learn than individual words because it implies some understanding of relations between entities—ie. not just any old fruit, my mom’s fruit, Russon noted.

What’s more, Kanzi is a skilled stone toolmaker.

The orangutan Azy selects a symbol for "apple" after being shown a slice of apple by a researcher at the Think Tank facility at Washington, D.C.'s National Zoo in 1996. Photo credit: National Geographic/Michael Nichols

“Not only does Azy communicate his thoughts with abstract keyboard symbols, he also demonstrates a ‘theory of mind’ (understanding another individual’s perspective) and makes logical, thoughtful choices that show a mental flexibility some chimpanzees lack,” according to National Geographic magazine.

As part of the facility’s Orangutan Language Project, orangutans, rewarded with food, learn to use a symbol-based language presented on a computer monitor, according to the Think Tank website.

The zoo’s “dictionary” has about 70 abstract symbols, all of which have no visual relation to the object they represent. There are seven categories of symbols: food, proper names of people, verbs, adjectives, Arabic numbers, nonfood objects, and proper names of orangutans.

Though it wasn’t the first time an ape had commuicated via symbols, Azy’s accomplishment “meant a nonhuman species could attribute meaning to otherwise meaningless arbitrary symbols,” Russon said.

An adult female lowland gorilla in the Republic of the Congo's Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park uses a walking stick to gauge the water's depth. The behavior, documented in a 2005 study in the journal PLoS Biology, was the first evidence that wild gorillas use tools. Photo credit: Breuer, Ndoundou-Hockemba, Fishlock et al, PLoS Biology

Previously, chimpanzees, bonobos, and orangutans had all been observed using tools. But scientists had speculated that gorillas had lost such skills out of lack of necessity, according to the study. After all, gorillas, the largest of the great apes, can easily crush nuts with their teeth or smash termite mounds without needing tools.

Overall, the walking-stick “observations suggest that the intelligence required for tool use evolved before the gorilla lineage split off from humans and the other great apes—providing further evidence that intelligence is not unique to humans,” according to the synopsis of the study.

Indeed, “gorillas have tended to be considered the least smart of the great apes, so this is good, because it brings them into the fold,” Russon said. Even so, “I don’t think [gorillas using tools] is a major leap forward—they do it in zoos, and even monkeys use stick tools.”

Ape researcher Jill Pruetz holds a spear made by a chimpanzee in 2007. Photo credit: National Geographic/Frans Lanting

Pruetz, who receives funding from he National Geographic Society’s Committee for Research and Exploration, was part of a team in Senegal that made the first ever scientific observations of chimpanzees making and using tools to hunt other mammals.

The researchers documented wild chimpanzees fashioning sticks into “spears” to hunt small primates called lesser bush babies no fewer than 22 times in 2007.

The apes’ behavior shows “problem-solving at very high levels—like hunter-gatherers,” said the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Breuer, whose work has also been funded by the National Geographic Committee for Research and Exploration.

The discovery is “important because ancestral humans supposedly did this to kill meat, to fuel their stomachs and their large brains,” Russon said.

The chimpanzee Ayumu begins a memory test with numerals jumbled on a touch screen in 2007. Photo credit: Tetsuro Matsuzawa, Primate Research Institute via Kyoto/AP

Researchers at the Primate Research Institute in Kyoto, Japan, pitted young chimpanzees against human adults in two tests of short-term memory. Overall, the chimps won.

That challenges the belief of many people, including a number of scientists, that “humans are superior to chimpanzees in all cognitive functions,” researcher Tetsuro Matsuzawa of Kyoto University told the Associated Press in 2007.

Matsuzawa, a pioneer in studying the mental abilities of chimps, said even he was surprised.

The Wildlife Conservation Society’s Breuer noted that “great apes are better in those memory tasks than humans—their memory functions in a very different way, and much faster than humans’.”