Orangutans Could Make Competent Mixologists

© Gregory MD. / Getty Images

By Gillie Houston Posted August 12, 2016

In a recent experiment, a Swedish ape demonstrated human-level flavor-prediction abilities.

When mixing up a cocktail, you most likely draw upon a variety of past experiences to make your ingredient choices. And, as one study proposes this week—Orangutans may have the same flavor predicting abilities. In a new study published in the journal Animal Cognition, researchers at Lund University in Sweden say that the large primates exhibit a type of taste memory previously thought to be unique to humans. And the basis for this conclusion is, in fact, rooted in mixology.

Study lead Gabriela-Alina Sauciuc and team tested their theory on a male orangutan named Naong in a Swedish zoo, providing him with four distinctive liquids—apple cider vinegar, cherry, rhubarb and lemon juices—which were available for him to sip on via straws. Not only was Naong given a taste of each of the liquids individually, but also different combinations of the ingredients. Following this initial exposure to the distinctive flavors, researchers discovered that Naong could recall the flavor combinations and predict whether or not a mix he had never sampled before would be tasty, or not.

After his initial tasting period, Naong showed a preferance towards a few favored ingredients and combinations, and could sense those ingredients within the drinks even if he didn't see the beverage mixed in front of him. In order to guarantee it was taste, not color, that the monkey was attracted to, researchers repeated the experiment with different dyes added to the ingredients, but still Naong stayed faithful to his favorites despite the change in appearance.

"It has been considered that only humans can [make predictions in this way], but we challenged this and showed that an orangutan was able to predict whether never-before-experienced mixes would taste good or bad," Sauciuc says to New Scientist, adding that "he could do this as well as 10 human 'control' subjects."

This groundbreaking research of the primate world illustrates that some—and perhaps all—monkeys are able to use something called "affective forecasting," a uniquely human trait "that allows the prediction of the hedonic outcome of never-before experienced situations, by mentally recombining elements of prior experiences into possible scenarios," according to the report.

"In our daily lives, we rely heavily on the ability to predict how situations might turn out as it guides minor and major decisions alike, from sweetening lemonade with sugar to stock market investments," Sauciuc says. And while we don't expect to see these large primates on the trading floor any time soon, Sauciuc's research could shed new light on the similarities between ourselves and our hairiest cousins.

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