Science Daily, Chris Palmer, August 5, 2013

Sweet Memories
One of the defining traits of human existence, the capacity for forming autobiographical memories of life experiences, may be shared with orangutans and chimpanzees. According to research published last month (July 18) in Current Biology, our primate cousins can quickly remember past events and draw on those memories, up to 3 years later, to perform simple behavioral tasks.
Researchers led by Gema Martin-Ordas, a comparative psychologist at Aarhus University in Denmark, devised a memory test for four orangutans and eight chimpanzees at the Leipzig Zoo in Germany. The apes watched as Martin-Ordas placed a banana on a platform outside of their cages, which they could only reach with a long stick. The animals then watched as Martin-Ordas hid the stick, as well as a shorter stick, in two different locations. The animals were released and had to find the correct tool to fetch the banana, a task that each performed easily. Over the course of the next 3 years, the apes performed a variety of other tasks with several different researchers. Then one day Martin-Ordas recreated the exact conditions of the banana-fetching task and all but one of the apes immediately went to the correct location to retrieve the long stick from its hiding place and used it to secure the banana.
“Three years is a remarkably long time to draw on a memory—not just for animals, but for us. It’s breathtaking,” Jonathon Crystal, a comparative psychologist at Indiana University in Bloomington, who was not involved in the study, told ScienceNOW.
However, Crystal and others are not ready to concede that the experimental results mean that orangutans and chimpanzees have autobiographical memories. Martin Conway, a memory researcher at City University London, told ScienceNOW that he thinks the apes have “moment-by-moment episodic memory,” but that he does not see evidence for “cued recall.”

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