Serious monkey business

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WE KNOW a thing or two about monkeys and apes in Scotland. Far as we are from the hot climes of their habitats, our reputation for the study of primate behaviour is world-class.

That reputation has just been confirmed by an award of 1.6 million from the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council to fund construction of the Living Links to Human Evolution Centre at Edinburgh Zoo. The new development will allow detailed research on the behaviour of our monkey cousins and will be the first research facility of its kind in the UK. Thanks to its zoo location, the new centre will put this fascinating study of primate behaviour directly into the public gaze.

The award’s recipients, the Scottish Primate Research Group (SPRG), has spent decades studying the behaviour of monkeys and apes, regularly tramping through the jungles of Africa and South America to observe their subjects. But the new primate centre will provide even more potential for understanding behaviour. Professor Andrew Whiten of St Andrews University, one of the funding bid leaders, says: "Some questions require closer and more controlled observation than is possible in the field."

American primatologist Dorothy Fragaszy, the outgoing president of the International Primatological Society, is also excited about the potential of the Living Links centre: "Primate researchers in Scotland do excellent work, but there has been limited access to captive primates. This new facility is absolutely unique and it’s a wonderful thing for British primatology."

As well as helping UK researchers, the centre will attract international scientists to come for periods of study. It will contain two large state-of-the-art enclosures, housing mirror-image primate communities. Adjoining the enclosures will be transparent research cubicles into which monkeys will be encouraged at specific times so they can be observed by researchers in various activities, such as using tools or watching video sequences.

"Researchers will sit in glass cubicles between zoo visitors and the monkeys, so that our visitors can look over the researchers’ shoulders, making what we do literally transparent," Whiten says.

The central atrium will contain multimedia displays about primate research, human evolution, and conservation, and academics will regularly present their work during talks at the zoo.

The emphasis on studying the behaviour of apes and monkeys stems from their close genetic relationship to us, says Dr Klaus Zuberbhler of St Andrews University: "Study of their behaviour can tell us about our past and help us understand how human minds evolved." Much of Whiten’s work centres on socially learned behaviours in chimpanzees, leading to different chimp cultures in different parts of their African range. "With two equivalent but separate groups of monkeys at the new centre, it will be possible to introduce different new behaviours into each group and see how habits are passed between individuals and how traditions grow," he says.

DURING HIS STUDIES of Diana monkeys in the Ivory Coast, Zuberbhler discovered monkeys have different alarm calls for different predators. "We’re trying to understand how different calls become meaningful to the monkeys," he says. "This could help us to find out how human language capacity has evolved." Studies of captive monkeys at the new centre may be able to shed light on this question.

The monkey species of choice for the new centre will be the capuchin, known for its intelligence, tool-using and social learning abilities. Housed together with the capuchins will be a second South American species, most probably squirrel monkeys. "Because primates are intelligent, they need mental stimulation which can be provided by the presence of other monkeys," says Whiten.

Construction of the centre will be finished next year and a full programme of research is expected to be well underway by the time the prestigious biennial conference of the International Primatological Society comes to Edinburgh in 2008.

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