He’s a SurVIVA!

Eoin viva (1)

Cheers Dr O’Sullivan

A huge congratulations to Eoin O’Sullivan who passed his viva yesterday. This means that Eoin is now officially a Doctor! This marks the end of his PhD journey, most of which was spent at Living Links.

Eoin’s PhD investigated Social Learning in children and capuchins and his thesis was entitled, ‘A comparative approach to social learning from the bottom up’. Eoin is particularly interested in mirror neurons - neurons that fire both when an animal acts and when the animal observes the same action performed by another. Eoin’s work was purely behavioural based on voluntary participation from the capuchins and children. Eoin is pictured here with his supervisor, Prof Christine Caldwell who presented him with a mirror in the shape of a capuchin. How fitting!

Eoin joined the Living Links in 2012 and was an extremely welcome addition. Eoin was always very calm with the animals and this was rewarded with a high voluntary participation rate. Eoin was a regular at Living Links for about three years and during that time he became very popular with keepers and researchers alike. He regularly participated in public engagement events and science communication. Eoin has recently been employed as an early career research fellow at the University of Stirling and we are sure he has a wonderful career ahead of him- we just hope to see him again soon at Living Links!


What does it mean to be a Living Links researcher?


Written by Sophia Daoudi

Walking through Living Links you may have either seen someone industriously walking around with a clipboard and binoculars or in one of the monkey interview rooms dressed up in a boiler suit. These are the researchers at Living Links. Researchers upstairs will usually be observational researchers and downstairs, experimental researchers, studying the monkeys cognitive abilities (e.g. how good is their memory), prosocial behaviour (are they able to share) or their ability to use tools.


All research is approved by RZSS Edinburgh Zoo and Scottish Primate Research Group. The current Living Links team include, Donald Gow- Animal Research and Team Leader, Dr. Lara Wood- Research Coordinator, and Prof Andrew Whiten- Scientific Director. A lot of time and effort goes into the approval process, so it’s really important to do thorough background reading and know your subject area well. A successful applicant then goes through all the necessary induction and training at Living Links, receives a research badge and start date and finally it feels official.

Now comes the tricky part, it is essential that we know who is who. I remember the first time that I studied the capuchins and squirrel monkeys back in 2009, the groups were smaller then, but even so I thought “how on earth am I going to learn all of these monkeys?”

Initially they all looked the same and I would spend hours on the observationjunon2 deck looking at them.  The more I watched them, the more I realised that they did, indeed, look different and have their own individual personalities. Looking back it now seems silly to think that they all looked the same. For instance, Junon (one of the adult female capuchins from the East group) has a white outline of fur around her face, she is quite gentle and moves cautiously.


Often the easiest individuals to identify in each group, for both species, are the alpha males, as they are usually the largest. Nowadays, there are around 66 squirrel and capuchin monkeys with babies being born throughout the year. Thankfully, the squirrel monkey each have an individually recognisable tag, but you still need to learn which colour represents which individual before you have any chance of passing the id test.living together

Then the fun begins, and even though there can be frustrations, such as the monkey you are watching disappears half way through the study period or you note something down and when you look back you can no longer locate them, getting to observe the monkeys in their day-to-day lives is such as wonderful experience and there is never a dull moment.

So if you are thinking of sending in a research proposal, hopefully, now you’ll have a bit more of an idea of what goes on and remember as a researcher you need to be flexible and allow enough time to collect all of your data, this way if/when, you have a “bad” day, you are less likely to panic with looming deadlines. Getting to observe the monkeys in their day-to-day lives was such a wonderful experience and there was never a dull moment. I wish I could do it all again. Now I have the joys of analysis to turn to but I’ll save that for a whole other blog.

Does taking part in research have a positive impact on Living Links primates?


Written by Suzi Ruby and Lara Wood


A recently published study based at Living Links has provided insight into the positive impact that voluntary involvement in individual cubicle research has on captive brown capuchin monkeys (Sapajus apella), whilst also highlighting aspects of research procedures which might be improved.

Given our interest in understanding the evolution of our own behaviour and intelligence, it is not surprising that primates are often the focus of zoo-based research testing. Living Links is a purpose built research and science public engagement centre. The research is voluntary and non-invasive. The monkeys are never food or water deprived and research sessions take about ten minutes and happen a maximum of eight times a week. However, it is essential that we monitor the impact of such research on the welfare of the research participants.

Research with Alison

Whilst some previous studies indicated that participating in research may be beneficial for primates, others indicated that it may be stressful and/or disruptive to their lives.

The observational study was carried out by Psychology student Suzanne Ruby under the supervision of Professor Hannah Buchanan-Smith from the University of Stirling. Suzanne observed the individual behaviours and social interactions of the Living Links capuchin monkeys following involvement in non-invasive voluntary behavioural research versus other occasions when the monkey was not involved in research.

Most of the findings were positive: following participation in research, general activity and stress related behaviours appeared to be relatively unaffected whilst the number of positive social interactions were enhanced. A goal of environmental enrichment is to enhance such affiliative interactions, as these are indicative of a positive welfare state.

Groom me

However there was also an increase in aggressive interactions following involvement in research; none of these interactions resulted in injury, but it is important to consider how we can minimise negative interactions. The researchers believe this aggression may have been caused by food held by the participating monkey as they left the research cubicle. Thus researchers will now be advised to allow the capuchins time to consume the food rewards before giving them access to the group.

This study has highlighted the need to carefully monitor research techniques but has largely demonstrated that taking part in research may have beneficial effects on captive primates. We must ensure that we continue to develop our understanding of the impact our interventions have on captive primates, and continue to improve our techniques.

Ruby, S. & Buchanan‐Smith, H. M. (2015). The effects of individual cubicle research on the social interactions and individual behavior of brown capuchin monkeys (Sapajus apella). American Journal of Primatology. 

Monkeys, Apes and Me: Research Talks at the Zoo

Guest Blog Post by Emmie Bryant, PhD student and the University of St Andrews

Emmie Bryant

Emmie Bryant

Here at Living Links and Budongo Trail, we are proud that our research is visible to our visitors, demonstrating that our work is not invasive or detrimental to our primates and engaging the general public with current scientific research. However, in the short time a visitor spends in Living Links, only a snapshot of what we do can be seen.

That’s why on Wednesday 1st July 2015, a group of researchers at Living Links and Budongo Trail took to the Budongo Lecture Theatre to discuss their findings. Opening with an introduction from the Director of Living Links, Professor Andy Whiten, and chaired by the Deputy Director, Dr Amanda Seed, the event went on to enlighten all attending about the variety of research taking place at Living Links.

Dr Lara Wood, the Research Coordinator at Living Links and a postdoctoral researcher at the University of St Andrews, gave a visual tour of cubicle research at Living Links and explained how a series of puzzle-like tasks may help to find out if capuchin monkeys could build upon their existing knowledge to solve more complicated problems. Zita Polgár, an MSc student at the University of Edinburgh, introduced her observational work on the squirrel monkeys. Does squirrel monkey personality influence the interaction time with visitors at the viewing window? Although no specific effects of personality were apparent, a greater level of interaction between monkeys and larger groups of visitors was observed, suggesting that the monkeys might enjoy visitors!

Dr Lewis Dean, another postdoctoral researcher at the University of St Andrews, took a different approach and introduced us to a lesser-known form of research we do here: work with children! Thousands of children visit Edinburgh Zoo every year, and it is interesting for researchers to look at how essential human cognitive skills develop in our early years, potentially giving us insight into the minds of our primate relatives. Lewis’ experiment involved giving a large and complicated puzzle to small groups of children at a time, then gradually swapping new children into the group to see if the information gained would be passed along and help the group solve the more complicated levels.

A slide from Hannah Buchanan-Smith's talk concerning possible Living Links with wild field sites

A slide from Hannah Buchanan-Smith’s talk concerning possible Living Links with wild field sites

Rounding off the event, an exciting and promising new enterprise was pitched by Professor Hannah Buchanan-Smith and her PhD student, Sophia Daoudi, from the University of Stirling. Our Budongo Trail research facility is twinned with a wild chimpanzee research field station in the Budongo Forest of Uganda. As yet, Living Links has no wild counterpart. Hannah and Sophia described plans for a potential field site in Suriname, where researchers could go and study wild brown capuchins and squirrel monkeys. Subject to support from appropriate bodies, this could be a fantastic new avenue for us. We are very excited at the prospect of “Living Wild Links”, so watch this space!

This event is held annually, so if you missed it this time around, keep your eyes peeled for next year’s talks when we’ll have a fresh batch of research to tell you about!

Please enter a caption, or a comment about the project



Aubrey Manning Retires as Living Links Board Chairman

image002Prof. Andrew Whiten, Director of Living Links, hands Prof. Aubrey Manning a gift  to thank him for his services as Chairman of the Living Links/Budongo Consortium Board. Aubrey has chaired the Board since Living Links opened in 2008, and is now stepping down. Prof. Alan Miller, FRSE has agreed to take the chair. Alan was Vice Principal for Research at St Andrews at the time Living Links was being set up and has recently retired as Deputy Principal at Heriot Watt University.

Not a Case of ‘Opposites Attract’ for our Monkeys

Popeye & PenelopeA recently published study has shown that monkeys with similar personalities are more likely to have better relationships than those with very different personality traits. Some of the key indicators that were connected with how strong their relationships were linked to their levels of openess and sociability.

In order to determine the monkeys’ individual personality differences the researchers used a 54 trait personality questionnaire that the zookeepers completed for each monkey. Then to determine the quality of their relationships they conducted behaviour observations.

The behaviour study included noting how much time the monkeys would spend together, as well as what they were doing when they were together (e.g. aggression, food sharing, grooming etc).

In addition puzzle feeders were added into the enclosure to see if the monkey pairs showed symmetry in their behaviour to use the device or avoid it.blake apparatus2

While watching the monkeys Dr Morton noted high levels of affiliative behaviour between Popeye and Penelope (pictured above), as well as high levels of symmetry in their behaviours around the puzzle feeder. Interestingly, these two monkeys also had similar personality traits appearing in their scores from the keeper surveys.

The results remained true even when other factors such as sex, age and rank were controlled for. These findings mean that their personalities may play a role in the quality of their relationships beyond that of status and kinship.

Morton, F.B., Weiss, A. Buchanan-Smith, and Lee, P.C (2015). Capuchin monkeys with similar personalities have higher quality relationships independent of age, sex, kinship and rank. Animal Behaviour.105, pp. 163 -171.

And the Winner Is…

During the Edinburgh International Science Festival we hosted an amazing event here at RZSS Edinburgh Zoo. It involved having our Animal Cultures stand up in Budongo Trail, a interactive trail around the zoo and a fierce competition of 6 soap box scientists all competing for the Living Links Public Engagement Prize. We are now happy to announce our winner is Dr Jill MacKay from Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC).

Jill MacKay Banner

Jill explained the science of animal personality to our visitors by giving a great example about how some lions can be bold and some can be shy. She discussed how we can assess this scientifically by using novel object tests and then compare the reactions of a variety of individual lions to then give us a scale of boldness or shyness in lions.

Watch Jill’s talk now.

Curious Cures

david attenborough with monkey medicine

Monkey medicine has always been a very popular research project here at Living Links. It features in our learning resources, we worked with the Edinburgh International Science Festival in 2014 to run an event called Wild Medicine and now our researchers have inputted their work into this David Attenborough documentary.

On Monday March 2nd at 9pm Natural Curiosities – Curious Cures (Series 3, Episode 5) will be aired on ‘Watch’ (Sky 109, Virgin Media 124).

The first half of the documentary will discuss the amazing sunscreen adaptations that hippos have, and the second part will focus on how primates, specifically capuchins use pungent materials to prevent insect bites.

Watch our mini documentary below to see what smelly items our Living Links capuchins like to use!

Calling all Animal Behaviour Scientists

presnts monkeys cropDo you research animal cognition and behaviour? Do you love what you do? Then why not tell visitors at RZSS – Edinburgh Zoo how cool it is? The Living Links Public Engagement Prize is a new competition aimed at animal behaviour researchers. It is being run as part of our ‘Animal Cultures’ event in the Edinburgh International Science Festival.

The idea is simple. We give you a soapbox at the Zoo and three minutes to talk about your research. There’s no PowerPoint, no projector and only the props that you can carry and the zoo’s animals behind you. Zoo visitors will be able to vote for their favourite speaker; at the end of the weekend (April 18th-19th) we’ll total the visitors’ votes and crown our winner.

The soapbox stage will be moved around the zoo and we’ll aim to put you next to the species that you study (don’t worry if we don’t have your species, we’ll find a relevant alternative). We want as broad a range of species and topics as possible, as long as your research is on some aspect of animal behaviour, we wanMeerkat_0006t you.

See the zoo’s animal collection by clicking the link below


What’s the point of doing this?

RZSS – Edinburgh Zoo attracts around 650,000 visitors each year, this is your chance to tell some of them about your research and why it is so interesting. It’s a great opportunity for you to raise the profile of your work and of yourself.

It is also a chance to develop important public engagement and presentation skills (once you’ve done a talk with a gibbon calling in the background, that conference audience won’t seem so scary!). With public engagement becoming ever more important in funding and fellowship applications, you’ll have a head-start on building that experience.

I’m sold! How do I take part?

The first stage is to send tokaus a recording of yourself talking about your research for three minutes (don’t worry we’ll give you a few seconds margin of error). You can film this on a smartphone or with a webcam. We’re not looking for spectacular camerawork or an Oscar-winning sound track, we want to see you talking with passion about your subject. As we have limited slots at the zoo, we will choose our finalists based on their videos.

Use We Transfer to send your entry to education@living-links.org by 27 March 2015. The finalists will be informed in the first week of April with the time of their talk. Videos will be judged on how well the research is presented and how engaging the presenter is. Please remember that you will be talking to a family audience, we won’t discriminate against any topic, but please bear this in mind when you are preparing your talk.


Finalists will get free entry to the zoo on the day of their talk and there is a £50 voucher (and personal glory) for the winner.

If you have any questions, please be in touch with Lewis Dean at lgd1@st-andrews.ac.uk or Alaina Macri amacri@rzss.org.uk

Note – Living Links has been used as an example of good practice by NCCPE

‘I wanna talk like you’ – New chimp arrivals pick up the same calls as Edinburgh Zoo’s old residents.

louis by jamie norris

New research led by scientists from the University of York and the University of Zurich provide the first evidence that chimpanzees can ‘learn’ calls that refer to particular objects.

The paper by Watson, SK., Townsend, SW, Schel, AM., Wilke, C., Wallace, EK., Cheng, L., West, V. and Slocombe, KE. ‘Vocal Learning in the Functionally Referential Food Grunts of Chimpanzees’ has just been published in Current Biology.

Over many years researchers here at RZSS Edinburgh Zoo have been studying the various food calls of our chimpanzees. Dr Katie Slocombe, one of the senior scientists on this recently released paper has been involved in researching Edinburgh’s chimpanzees since 2002, so she and her colleagues have gathered a great wealth of knowledge on our troop.

If you are a regular follower of this blog or a visitor to Edinburgh Zoo you may know that in 2010 a new group of adult chimpanzees from Beekse Bergen Safari Park in the Netherlands were integrated with our Edinburgh chimpanzees. These new additions to our troop gave researchers a unique opportunity to investigate whether chimpanzees can change their food calls when they become incorporated into a new group.

Chimpanzees give distinct grunts when they find different types of food, and other chimpanzees understand the meaning of those grunts. They will give a high pitched sound for a preferred food and lower for less preferred item. Katie, Stuart and their colleagues found before integration the animals had different grunts for apples as well as different preferences for apples. They discovered that the Dutch chimpanzees modified their grunts referring to apples so that, three years after integration of the two groups, their calls were very similar to those produced by the resident Edinburgh chimpanzees.

Does this mean our Dutch chimps have learnt to speak Scottish?

Want to learn more about how we study chimpanzee communication, watch one of our learning resources videos.


or click on this BBC news link below to hear more about this amazing research and what our zoo visitors think too!