Orangutans Can Predict Their Cocktail Preferences, Just Like Humans

By getting the apes drunk on juice, scientists discovered they’re capable of predictive thought.

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Aug 14 2016, 4:34pm

Does this guy look like he needs a drink? Image: Flickr/Njambi Ndiba

Humans love to believe that we're unique. Yet every year, it seems like a host of abilities once thought to be possessed solely by people are found in other species. Take the very important ability to predict what a cocktail might taste like, for example.

By providing an orangutan named Naong with his own personal (non-alcoholic) cocktail bar at Furuvik Zoo in Sweden, researchers discovered that he possessed a type of predictive thought once believed to be exclusive to humans. Naong was given apple cider vinegar and three different kinds of fruit juices: cherry, rhubarb, and lemon.

He was quickly able to learn and remember the distinct flavor of each beverage. What was most surprising however, is that Naong could also predict whether he would like the taste of combinations he hadn't already tried.

In other words, Naong appeared to be capable of "affective forecasting," or the ability to predict the outcome of never-before-experienced situations by recombining parts of past situations. It was previously believed that animals were only capable of predicting the outcome of events they had already directly experienced.

After trying each of the four beverages alone, Naong was able to predict which mixtures he would prefer before he had tried them, the researchers discovered. A personal bartender mixed the four beverages together for him while he watched, and he knew which combinations he would prefer before he ever tasted them.

He was just as good at predicting his preferences as 10 human control subjects, according to Gabriela-Alina Sauciuc, one of the scientists who worked on the study.

Naong picked his preferred beverages 88 percent of the time when he was offered them in three additional rounds of trials. To make sure that he was choosing his drinks based on taste, rather than the color of the cocktails, the researchers mixed them out of Naong's sight, and even used food coloring to change their appearance.

Each time, he was still able to pick his drink of choice based on taste.

These intelligent furry giants are capable of far more than just agreeing that cherry and rhubarb go pretty well together. Researchers have found that orangutans are also pretty talented carpenters, capable of crafting their own sophisticated treetop beds.

These findings shouldn't come as too much of a surprise, since orangutans share about 96 percent of their genes with humans, according to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).

Unfortunately, time is running out to learn about these great apes. Orangutans come in two distinct species, Bornean and Sumatran, and both are greatly endangered. According to the WWF, there were around 230,000 orangutans about a century ago, but now their combined populations have dwindled to less than 80,000.

One of the biggest causes of their decline is loss of habitat to the world's seemingly never-ending appetite for palm oil, a cheap additive used in everything from food to biofuel.

On the Indonesian islands of Sumatra and Borneo, fires intentionally started to clear the forest for palm oil plantations are literally burning away the habitats of these ginger giants.

To make matters more complicated, efforts to preserve orangutans have sometimes resulted in unintended consequences.

Earlier this year, scientists in Borneo discovered that while isolated in sanctuaries, orangutans would interbreed, resulting in unique "cocktails" of genes, which were genetically distinct from those in wild populations.

Time to have a drink.

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