Learning monkey business
HAVE you ever wondered how research into animal behaviour is carried out? Now you have a chance to find out, as next week sees the official opening of a multi-million-pound, state-of-the-art primate behaviour research centre at Edinburgh Zoo, where visitors will be able to look over the scientists’ shoulders to watch monkeys learning new tasks.
The Living Links to Human Evolution Centre is so named to emphasise the fact that the study of primates, our closest living relatives, helps us to understand the origins of our own behaviour.
The new centre comprises two large enclosures that are mirror images of each other, each housing a mixed species community of South American monkeys. One species is the famously brainy brown capuchin – in the wild, they use a variety of “tools”, such as stones for cracking nuts. The other species is the much smaller squirrel monkey, which live in groups of up to 120 and are often seen travelling with capuchins in their wild forest home.
Andrew Whiten, a professor of evolutionary and developmental psychology at St Andrews University, says: “Some big questions lie behind our research at Living Links like, ‘What makes us human?’ We want to find out all the ways in which these primates share some of our mental abilities, even if in simpler ways, and just where the differences begin.”
For example, the researchers already have some evidence that different groups of monkeys develop different local traditions, which suggests a form of culture.
The dual enclosure design means new behaviours can be introduced to one group but not the other. Researchers can then compare the behaviour of the two groups and see how learned habits spread and local traditions are established. The scientists thus hope to learn about the origins of culture.
Another line of research relates to language. Prof Whiten says: “We want to know how well the monkeys use their different vocalisations to communicate about different things important to them in their world, like predators.”
Not all of the work will focus on illuminating human behaviour origins, however. Hannah Buchanan-Smith of Stirling University’s department of psychology will be leading research into welfare issues for the monkeys themselves. “By recording their behaviour and changing their environment accordingly, we can continually improve their wellbeing,” she says.
The monkeys certainly seem very content with their surroundings at Living Links. When I visited, the capuchins were resting and playing high up in the trees of their outdoor enclosure, while the squirrel monkeys raced around in the tangled smaller branches.
Charlotte MacDonald, research liaison officer and head keeper at Living Links, says: “We’ve gone to great lengths when we were planning the monkeys’ environment and putting the stuff in to make sure there are lots of routes around the enclosure and there are lots of things to do.”
The monkeys have found different ways to forage for food, and the capuchins have been hunting wild birds that land in their trees, Ms MacDonald says. Valerie Dufour, a post-doctoral researcher, says the research itself enriches the monkeys’ lives: the things the monkeys learn and do as part of the research will be fun, and they are in total control – no monkey will be forced to take part. And, of course, they enjoy the food treats that they get during their learning sessions.
Frans de Waal is the director of Living Links’ sister institution at Emory University, Atlanta. He says: “This is the sort of research that the public will appreciate the importance of, and that can be shown first hand under the right conditions.
“It is also valuable for animals in captivity to be kept busy, and this is most certainly what daily testing on cognitive tasks will do. I think people sometimes associate research with something negative, but it is obvious from the reactions of the animals that they’re eager to be tested, to face the challenge of a new situation.”
The scientists working at Living Links are members of the Scottish Primate Research Group, based across the universities of St Andrews, Stirling, Edinburgh and Abertay. Members of the group also carry out research on primates in the wild, mostly in Africa and South America.
Studies of captive primates, however, can answer questions that are almost impossible to decipher in the wild, such as how monkeys perceive the social and physical world they live in.
Scotland already has a world-class reputation in the study of monkeys and apes, and this is a big year for Edinburgh in particular. As well as Living Links, the zoo has recently opened Budongo, a major new chimpanzee facility, and this August hundreds of delegates will descend on the capital from all over the world as Edinburgh hosts the five-day congress of the International Primatological Society.
&149 Living Links ( www.living-links.org) will be officially opened by Dr Jane Goodall DBE on Tuesday. She will also give a talk at 7pm the same evening, in George Square Theatre (tickets from The Hub: 0131-473 2000; www.hubtickets.co.uk).
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Saturday 18 May 2013
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