Gorillas 'cheat' to solve puzzle, study shows

UK researchers discover cheating tendencies from lowland gorillas

MKAFYP London, UK. 7th May, 2018. Western lowland gorillas having fun in the sun, May Bank Holiday Monday, ZSL London Zoo, UK.  Male silverback, Kumbuka, ponders a large bucket in the Gorilla Kindgdom, tips it over, and 'plants a tree' in the now empty pot, while his daughter, Alika, tastes and then washes in the freshly spilled suds. Credit: Chris Aubrey/Alamy Live News

Gorillas at a zoo in England have demonstrated a distinctly human trait while trying to solve a new puzzle game. They cheat.

The gorillas were given a wall-mounted device on which a peanut is guided through obstacles by poking a stick through holes to move it along. Eventually the peanut reaches the bottom of the device and drops out.

But some of the apes have figured out an easier way to retrieve the nut. “We’ve seen a lot of cheating behaviour where they’ve been putting their lips up against the device and sucking the nut out, which was not how we intended the device to be used,” said Dr Fay Clark, from Bristol Zoo Gardens.

“But it just shows you that they’re very flexible, they’re capable of creating new solving strategies to access the food. They have some fascinating problem-solving abilities that have probably not been witnessed before.”

The scientists say the game, introduced this year, proved a hit with the troop of endangered western lowland gorillas, who regularly return to play even when there were no more nuts to win.


Read more:

Elephant in the room: are animals far cleverer than humans like to think?

Why more couples are choosing pets over children — and the impact if could have on their health


The “Gorilla Game Lab” project from the University of Bristol and Bristol Zoological Society developed the game to encourage the gorillas’ cognitive and puzzle-solving abilities.

The prototype device had to be strong enough to withstand a frustrated gorilla, which can be seven times stronger than humans. It also had to be engaging enough to keep them coming back for more.

“Each of the modules in the game are removable so we can take the modules out, redesign them and put in an additional module or change the actual structure,” said engineer Dr Stuart Gray, of the University of Bristol.

“So it creates an endless stream of new and novel puzzles for them to solve.”

While the main aim of the project is to create a “positive psychological state of pleasure and satisfaction in the gorillas”, the researchers are already setting their sights on more advanced models that would help zookeepers better understand the mental and physical condition of the animal.

“Things like eyesight, hearing, other cognitive functions — all of these could be measurable further on down the line,” Dr Gray said.