World-leading chimpanzee research unit opens at Edinburgh Zoo

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A cutting-edge new chimpanzee research facility has opened at RZSS Edinburgh zoo in partnership with the University of St Andrews.

The Budongo Research Unit (BRU), based at the zoo’s Budongo Trail chimp enclosure, will allow chimpanzees to play interactive games entirely voluntarily.

Chimpanzees at Edinburgh Zoo.

Chimpanzees at Edinburgh Zoo.

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The animals are presented with objects such as puzzle boxes which they learn to manipulate, and computer games and simulations which they can navigate using touch screens.

The chimps are motivated to take part as a form of entertainment, and because they are able to gain food rewards.

Researchers observe and record their behaviour using video, eye-tracking technology, computerised recording, touch-sensitive screens and thermal imaging.

Professor Josep Call, Dame Anne Glover, Professor Sally Mapstone, Dr Charlotte MacDonald and Costorphine Primary children Aizah, Fraser, Robyn and Callum. Picture: University of St Andrews.

Professor Josep Call, Dame Anne Glover, Professor Sally Mapstone, Dr Charlotte MacDonald and Costorphine Primary children Aizah, Fraser, Robyn and Callum. Picture: University of St Andrews.

Professor Josep Call, Director of the Budongo Research Unit, is a Professor at the School of Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of St Andrews and one of the world’s most influential cognitive primatologists.

He said: “The Budongo Research Unit is a state-of-the-art facility that allows us to use the latest technology to investigate the cognition and behaviour of chimpanzees. We study not just one aspect but multiple aspects such as communication, social learning and coordination.”

The research unit is an extension of the zoo’s normal enclosure housing 15 chimpanzees, linked to the Budongo forest reserve in Uganda.

St Andrews Principal Professor Sally Mapstone said: “We’re hoping to observe how the chimpanzees engage with space, the choices they make, when they want to be on their own, and when they don’t. We can learn a huge amount which can be applied to humans.”

She added: “It’s important to show we can do this work in public, a university shouldn’t be a closed off place. It’s about getting people in to look and learn - especially children. It’s hugely inspiring.”

Several games involve computer screens, including a ‘match-making’ digital memory card game.

In another game chimps can navigate simulated environments on a computer, such that they might find in the wild, and use the touchscreen to move around as in a video game.

If the animals manage to find a virtual fruit on the computer screen, they are rewarded with a real-life fruit in return.

This particular game is designed to find out, among other things, how chimpanzees navigate and whether they use landmarks or detours.

Researchers also want to examine the relationship between the animals and technology - for example whether they can make the link between an on-screen apple and the real thing, or if they are just seeing colours and shapes.

“Getting this kind of dynamic feedback is something no one has done with chimpanzees before,” said one researcher working with the animals.

“It’s hard to carry out this kind of research in the wild, as the area is too big to monitor. And in captivity it’s too small. So using computer simulations creates a sweet spot in between the two.”

One chimp, Velu, is particularly good at the on-screen activities.

At five years old he is the zoo's youngest, and is sometimes plucked away from his video-game fun by his mum Heleen.