Ecology and evolution

Vervet monkeys use paths consistent with context-specific spatial movement heuristics.

PMID 26668734


Animal foraging routes are analogous to the computationally demanding "traveling salesman problem" (TSP), where individuals must find the shortest path among several locations before returning to the start. Humans approximate solutions to TSPs using simple heuristics or "rules of thumb," but our knowledge of how other animals solve multidestination routing problems is incomplete. Most nonhuman primate species have shown limited ability to route plan. However, captive vervets were shown to solve a TSP for six sites. These results were consistent with either planning three steps ahead or a risk-avoidance strategy. I investigated how wild vervet monkeys (Chlorocebus pygerythrus) solved a path problem with six, equally rewarding food sites; where site arrangement allowed assessment of whether vervets found the shortest route and/or used paths consistent with one of three simple heuristics to navigate. Single vervets took the shortest possible path in fewer than half of the trials, usually in ways consistent with the most efficient heuristic (the convex hull). When in competition, vervets' paths were consistent with different, more efficient heuristics dependent on their dominance rank (a cluster strategy for dominants and the nearest neighbor rule for subordinates). These results suggest that, like humans, vervets may solve multidestination routing problems by applying simple, adaptive, context-specific "rules of thumb." The heuristics that were consistent with vervet paths in this study are the same as some of those asserted to be used by humans. These spatial movement strategies may have common evolutionary roots and be part of a universal mental navigational toolkit. Alternatively, they may have emerged through convergent evolution as the optimal way to solve multidestination routing problems.