Monkey business may mirror our human culture, says chimp expert
IT HAS long been observed that monkeys and humans exhibit similar behaviour.
Now Scottish scientists using a pioneering new research facility hope to prove that groups of monkeys can form traditions and cultures just like our own societies.
The renowned chimpanzee expert Dr Jane Goodall yesterday opened the 1.6 million centre at Edinburgh Zoo where the similarities between monkeys and humans, will be studied.
Dr Goodall is credited with redefining the relationship between humans and animals when she discovered 40 years ago that chimpanzees use tools.
Now the Living Links to Human Evolution centre will enable scientists from the University of St Andrews to study the ways in which communities of monkeys behave.
Dr Goodall believes that humans did not previously accept the links between humans and their relatives because they were "arrogant".
"I think it's completely fascinating. If you are interested at all in how the human came to be the rather peculiar primates we are, the more we need to know these primates.
"People used to think monkeys can't do the same sort of things chimpanzees do because their brains are smaller.
"Now we find capuchins (a type of monkey] using sticks and stones in sophisticated ways. We can learn an awful lot about their social behaviour."
The facility, which is open to the public, is made up of two very similar enclosures, which each contain a mix of squirrel monkeys and capuchins.
Scientists will introduce specific types of behaviour into one group and not the other, to find out whether it develops into a local tradition within that community.
Professor Andrew Whiten from the University of St Andrews, who is director of the new centre, said: "Monkeys behave in different ways in different places. That suggests maybe these could be local traditions."
One experiment could be to show one group a video of monkeys in the wild cracking open nuts. They will then study whether that group learns the technique and watch to find out if it becomes a tradition among those monkeys but not in the other group.
"If they start doing that behaviour and the others don't, then we have strong scientific evidence," said Prof Whiten.
Another technique would be to give the monkeys an artificial fruit that is very difficult to open, with a food treat inside. The researchers will teach a different method of opening the "fruit" to each group, and will study whether they pick up that technique as a local tradition.
Prof Whiten added: "Some big questions will lie behind our research at the new Living Links centre, such as 'what makes us human?' We want to find out all the ways in which these primates share some of our mental abilities, and just where the difference begin."
Charlotte Macdonald, head gamekeeper at Living Links, said just like two groups of humans, the two enclosures of monkeys were made up of different personalities. "One group is very confident and bold. The other is a bit more shy. They are just fascinating. It's like a soap opera."
She added: "At the end of the day humans are animals. Obviously we have become more cultured and sophisticated, but we are still animals."
Visitors to the zoo will be able to watch the research and Dr Goodall believes this is one of the most important elements.
"This is connecting young people back to the natural world," she said. "They can imagine that they are out in the rain forest. This is what young children are deprived of these days. They are so often divorced from the natural world."
DR JANE Goodall has devoted her life to tirelessly helping chimpanzees and the environment.
Her pioneering research into chimp behaviour began at Gombe National Park in Tanzania in 1960.
She defied scientific convention by giving the chimps names instead of numbers, and she insisted her work showed that animals have distinct personalities and emotions.
As a child she was given a lifelike chimpanzee toy named Jubilee by her father. Today, the toy still sits on her dresser in London.
She founded the Jane Goodall Institute in 1977, which carries out crucial work protecting chimps and their environment.
She travels 300 days a year speaking about the threats facing chimpanzees.
But Dr Goodall said she does not agree with the idea animals should not be kept in zoos.
She said in an ideal world all chimpanzees would live in protected areas, but she added: "We are not living in an ideal world. There are zoos and there are zoos. There is good work that can be done in zoos if it's a good zoo."
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