Chimpanzees at Leipzig Zoo have challenged the belief that animals are "stuck in time". Photo: Hendrik Schmidt/DPA/AFP
Gema Martin-Ordas Martin-Ordas, a comparative psychologist at Denmark's Aarhus University in Denmark headed up the research project.
She and her team worked with apes at Germany's Leipzig Zoo with the animals carrying out task requiring them to draw on three-year-old memories.
Those apes who had taken part in the same experiments in the past needed only five seconds to remember the location of hidden tools they could use to access food.
The animals who had not previously completed the task were left confused.
"I was really surprised that they could remember this event and that they did it so fast," Martin-Ordas told Science Magazine.
The findings, published recently in Current Biology are the first report of such a long-lasting memory in non-human animals.
Until recently, scientists believed that animals had no sense of the past or future and that they were unable to recall specific events from their lives, living instead completely 'in the moment'.
The study changes this, as Martin-Ordas noted: "There is good evidence challenging the idea that non-human animals are stuck in time."
But trying to show that apes also have a conscious recollection of autobiographical events is "the tricky part," she admitted.