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A number of studies from the 1960s to 1990s assessed the symbolic competence of great apes and other animals. These studies provided varying forms of evidence that some species were capable of symbolically representing their worlds, both through productive symbol use and comprehension of symbolic stimuli. One such project at the Language Research Center involved training chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) to use lexigram symbols (geometric visual stimuli that represented objects, actions, locations, and individuals). Those studies now are more than 40 years old, and only a few of the apes involved in those studies are still alive. Three of these chimpanzees (and a fourth, control chimpanzee) were assessed across a 10-year period from 1999 to 2008 for their continued knowledge of lexigram symbols and, in the case of one chimpanzee, the continued ability to comprehend human speech. This article describes that longitudinal assessment and outlines the degree to which symbol competence was retained by these chimpanzees across that decade-long period. All chimpanzees showed retention of lexigram vocabularies, although there were differences in the number of words that were retained across the individuals. One chimpanzee also showed continual retention of human speech perception. These retained vocabularies largely consisted of food item names, but also names of inedible objects, locations, individuals, and some actions. Many of these retained words were for things that are not common in the daily lives of the chimpanzees and for things that are rarely requested by the chimpanzees. Thus, the early experiences of these chimpanzees in symbol-rich environments have produced long-lasting memories for symbol meaning, and those competencies have benefited research in a variety of topics in comparative cognition.


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PLoS ONE 10(2): e0118408. doi: pone.0118408

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Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.