Do Animals Plan for the Future?

Are we the only species that can imagine what is going to happen next?

Posted Mar 18, 2020

Bradley Howington, used with permission
Goffin cockatoo
Source: Bradley Howington, used with permission

It is difficult to predict what is going to happen, yet we want to. But is this desire to plan for the future unique to humans?

Even before temperatures drop in fall, many bird species in the Northern hemisphere prepare to fly south, where they will find safety and plenty of food to last through winter. Are these birds thinking ahead and planning for the future?

No, they are not. For birds, migration is an innate behavior. In the period before migration, the change of day length leads to hormonal changes that cause many birds to display higher activity, described by the German word zugunruhe (meaning migratory restlessness). Even birds raised in cages show zugunruhe, and they display a preferential flight direction that corresponds with the migratory direction they would take in nature (Nievergelt, Liechti & Bruderer, 1999).

Does this mean that animals are not capable of planning for the future — and that this is a typical human trait?

To answer this, we need to take a closer look at the concept of planning. Is a wolf on a hunt planning how it will catch its prey? No, the wolf is probably just setting out to satisfy its immediate needs, not playing through future scenarios in its mind. In comparative psychology, we describe the mental time travel that allows one to imagine the future as flexible planning, and we know that not all animals are capable of it.

Let’s look at an example. Say it is a cold, rainy day but you’re planning a trip to the warm, sunny South (don’t worry, at some point, this will be possible again). Even though you may be wearing a jacket and waterproof shoes today, your ability to imagine what you’ll need when you’re soaking up the sun in the future allows you to pack shorts, sunglasses, and sun lotion. You’re engaging in flexible planning – imagining the future independent from what is happening today.

So migrating birds and hunting wolves aren’t planning for the future, but recent findings show us that other animals are. One of the first studies to raise the question of animal planning was done in an ape house in Leipzig, Germany.

In the experiment, bonobos and orangutans were given the opportunity to retrieve grapes from an apparatus with the help of a special tool. Later, although the grapes and the tool remained, the apparatus was closed. After an hour, the apes could approach the apparatus again, but this time the tool was missing. None of the apes solved the problem in the first trial, but also humans cannot foresee the future (see above); they need experience in order to predict what will happen.

In repeated trials, the apes saved the tool for later use, showing that they could use experience to imagine the future, make predictions, and plan ahead (Mulcahy & Call, 2006). Some of my own research has shown that apes not only keep tools they will need later, but they also produce them (Bräuer & Call, 2015).

And apes’ planning abilities are very flexible according to a study published last year. Orangutans had to make a choice between a tool (that was appropriate or not to open an apparatus containing food) and food (that was either more or less preferred). It turned out that orangutans maximized the quality of their food intake by a flexible choice. For example, they chose a tool over an immediately accessible food item to obtain a more preferred food item — by then using the tool. Most of them also did not want to work too hard, if it could be avoided: They chose the immediate food option over the tool if the food inside the apparatus was of the same quality (Laumer, Auersperg, Bugnyar, & Call, 2019).

But there is even more evidence that apes plan their future. Flanged male orangutans, for example, plan their travel as they move about the rainforest. The males emit long calls, which females use to maintain earshot associations with them. The direction in which a male emits his long calls predicts his subsequent travel direction for many hours, and a new call indicates a change in his main travel direction (van Schaik, Damerius, & Isler, 2013). A male chimpanzee in a Swedish zoo was observed saving stones to later throw at visitors (Osvath, 2009), showing that not only can apes plan – they also know a thing or two about social distancing.

So, is future planning something only humans and our primate cousins can do? Actually, no – researchers are finding surprising cognitive abilities throughout the animal kingdom. Scrub Jays, a species of North American bird, hide the specific foods least likely to be available for their breakfast on the next day, like meal preppers setting aside portions (Correia, Dickinson, & Clayton, 2007).

Goffin cockatoos are able to maximize profit by considering the quality of an immediate food reward versus the quality of delayed food reward which requires a tool to access (Laumer, Bugnyar, & Auersperg, 2016). We are hoping that future research into animal cognition will introduce us to more of our forward-thinking friends and teach us more about our own thinking in the process.

Even if not all animals can plan for the future, human beings can. So let’s use our powerful brains to adapt our behavior today and start planning for a future we all can share in.

References

Bräuer, J., & Call, J. (2015). Apes produce tools for future use. American Journal of Primatology, 77(3), 254-263.

Correia, S. P. C., Dickinson, A., & Clayton, N. S. (2007). Western Scrub-Jays Anticipate Future Needs Independently of Their Current Motivational State. Current Biology, 17(10), 856-861.

Laumer, I. B., Auersperg, A. M. I., Bugnyar, T., & Call, J. (2019). Orangutans (Pongo abelii) make flexible decisions relative to reward quality and tool functionality in a multi-dimensional tool-use task. PLoS ONE, 14(2), e0211031.

Laumer, I. B., Bugnyar, T., & Auersperg, A. M. I. (2016). Flexible decision-making relative to reward quality and tool functionality in Goffin cockatoos (Cacatua goffiniana). Scientific Reports, 6(1), 28380.

Mulcahy, N. J., & Call, J. (2006). Apes Save Tools for Future Use. Science, 312(5776), 1038-1040.

Nievergelt, F., Liechti, F., & Bruderer, B. (1999). Migratory directions of free-flying birds versus orientation in registration cages. J Exp Biol, 202(Pt 16), 2225-2231

Osvath, M. (2009). Spontaneous Planning for Future Stone Throwing by a Male Chimpanzee. Current Biology, 19(5), R190-R191.

van Schaik, C. P., Damerius, L., & Isler, K. (2013). Wild Orangutan Males Plan and Communicate Their Travel Direction One Day in Advance. PLoS ONE, 8(9), e74896.