Apps for animals: iPads used in communicating with apes, dolphins

Published: Thursday, May 10 2012 2:55 p.m. MDT

In this Feb. 21, 2012 photo, after being told a word, an orangutan points to that object on an IPAd at Jungle Island in Miami. Experts who work with primates have been using sign language and other methods to communicate with apes for years. But with advancements in tablet computer technology, workers at Jungle Island in Miami are using iPads to better communicate with their orangutans.

J Pat Carter, Associated Press

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Researchers have long been interested in communicating with different species of animals through technology. With developments in mobile devices such as iPads, comes an unexpected windfall in animal interaction and communication research.

Selling over 67 million iPads as of April 24, 2012, Apple's booming industry is branching out its audience to include more than just Homo sapiens. Apes and dolphins are among the various species to interact with iPads and there are even several iPad games designed specifically for pets.

Dolphins were the first zoological animal to be introduced to the iPad. Jack Kassewitz of SpeakDolphin works with Merlin, a Bottlenose Dolphin in aquatic communication research. Kassewitz has taught Merlin to touch photos of objects on the screen with his nose that correspond to the real objects he is shown.

"This is an easy task for a dolphin, but it is a necessary building block towards our goal of a complete language interface between humans and dolphins," Kassewitz said in a press release. After successful interactions with dolphins, apes were the next in line to play with this over-priced toy.

Orangutans at the Jungle Island zoological park in Miami are learning to communicate with their keepers by sounds, hand gestures and the iPad, said program director Linda Jacobs. After the trainer names an object, the Orangutans are able to identify it from various others on the screen and press the corresponding image. They also draw and play games on the iPad as part of a mental stimulus and enrichment program.

The younger Orangutans have picked up on the new form of communication, but the older ones don't seem interested. "I think they just figure, 'I've gotten along just fine in this world without this communication-skill here and the iPad, and I don't need a computer,'" Jacobs told Associated Press.

Birute Mary Galdikas, founder of the Orangutan Foundation International has studied Orangutans in the wild for more than four decades. "It's not surprising that Orangutans, who share 97 percent of their genetic material with humans, like (iPads), too," she said.

Similar research has been done with Bonobos using a touch screen computer called a Lexigram. Ken Schweller is the Buena Vista University professor working with the Bonobo Hope Great Ape Sanctuary to test Bonobos' communication skills.

Schweller has successfully taught seven Bonobos to recognize and associate words with pictures. One ape, Kanzi, knows about 500 Lexigram words while Tico, his son, uses an iPad. "For instance, if (the Bonobo) wants a ball, he will say he wants a ball and then he will get a ball," Schweller told Sioux City Journal.

iPads are being used for more than just entertainment or enrichment. "Apps For Apes" is a program being built by Richard Zimmerman, executive director of Orangutan Outreach, who plans to use donated iPads to connect Orangutans with family members in different zoos through video feed. Jahe, an Orangutan at the Memphis Zoo even appeared to recognize her relatives on the screen, Zimmerman told Yahoo News. "Given an opportunity to demonstrate that intelligence, it's pretty amazing."

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