“Cup Game” Provides Insight into Monkeys’ Understanding of Hidden Objects

Written by: Dr. Blake Morton

Some of you may have seen or heard about our capuchin and squirrel monkeys participating in a special type of problem-solving task, which we’ve affectionately dubbed “the cup game”. This task is designed to measure object permanence, which is a fancy term psychologists’ use to describe why an individual knows that when an object or person goes out of sight, that object/person still exists (i.e. it hasn’t fallen off the face of the earth!). In humans, this mental ability has fully developed by around two years of age, which is why children younger than this typically find the “peek-a-boo!” game hilarious: when you cover your face with your hands, children who have not yet developed object permanence think you’ve disappeared, which is why they act surprised as you “magically” reappear and say “peek-a-boo!” with a grin. It’s a classic stage in child cognitive development.

We’ve known for quite some time that monkeys and other animals like dogs and birds have this ability too. Not surprisingly, this ability should exist in many different kinds of animals where, for example, individuals foraging in trees might benefit from understanding that hidden food items are behind branches and leaves, or that predators concealed by tall grass are still lurking nearby!

We use the cup game at Living Links to train new researchers who come to work with our monkeys. The task is fun and easy to administer, and it gives the monkeys and new researchers an opportunity to get to know one another! Have a look at one of our squirrel and capuchin monkeys participating in the cup game below.

Squirrel Monkeys Cup Game Video

Capuchin Monkeys Cup Game Video

As you can see in the videos, monkeys must choose between two different cups. One cup has a hidden food reward underneath it, the other cup does not. Each monkey gets the chance to play the game twice a day, once in the morning and then again in the afternoon. Within each of these sessions, monkeys can get up to ten food rewards if they choose the correct cup every time. The monkeys’ behaviour suggests that they possess object permanence because they always reach for the cup containing the hidden food reward, even when the position of each cup has been switched. A simple task, but it is clear that object permanence exists in these species – just like us!

 

Do Capuchin’s deceive their con-specifics with false alarm calls?

Written by: Kirsty-Marie Moran

Have you ever involuntarily screamed at a scary movie? Ever wondered why you couldn’t control it? Well, the underlying cause of this spontaneous vocalisation that draws all attention to you in that split second is emotion. This lack of control over some of our emotions is not unique to humans, we also share this with other species such as nonhuman primates. Primates may not scream at a scary movie when scared or startled but they do produce an alarm call when a threat is near by, communicating this message to their group mates. 

However, emotions do not always result in involuntary vocalisations, they can somewhat be controlled and used to your advantage, for instance, as a child if you cry because you did not get what you wanted and your parents give in then you learn to use those ‘crocodile tears’ to get what you want. This deceiving behaviour is something that primates such as chimpanzees also do in certain contexts

When competing for food, chimpanzees can produce a false alarm call, tricking others into thinking a threat is nearby which gives the calling chimpanzee an opening to go get food first. Up until recently, this deceptive behaviour has been limited to species with high cognitive abilities. However, recent evidence suggesting high cognitive abilities are not necessary for this deceptive behaviour has led to the belief that maybe smaller primates, such as brown tufted capuchins can also deceive their fellows, much like chimpanzees do.

This led to an important research question, ‘can Capuchins use alarm calls to deceive conspecifics or are these calls a product of involuntary emotion?’

One of our researchers at Living Links alongside researchers from German, Italian, and UK universities set out to answer this question by focusing on the occurrence of anxious behaviours i.e. scratching when these false alarm calls were produced by capuchins.

The researchers placed banana pieces on wooden platforms (figure 1) to stimulate food competition and elicit the ‘deceptive’ calls in wild black Capuchins at Iguazu National Park, Argentina. It was predicted that if anxiety drove the false alarm calls, then anxious behaviours and ‘deceptive’ alarm calls would happen together. Additionally, brown tufted capuchins at the Institute of Cognitive Sciences and Technologies in Italy were observed to check if their alarm calls and anxiety more generally occurred at the same time.

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Figure 1.

During the platform experiments in the wild, it was found that those who gave alarm calls displayed a lower level of anxiety. Whilst those who gave alarm calls in captivity displayed higher levels of anxiety. These findings suggest that anxiety was a reliable indicator of predator alarm calls, but that anxiety alone does not fully explain this phenomenon.

Overall, it was concluded that anxiety is necessary for the call to be produced, but some form of intentional control ultimately decided whether they would call or not. This suggests that it is unlikely these monkeys intentionally trick their group mates, but that they are driven by emotion and possibly associative learning.

 

 

Kean, D., Tiddi, B., Fahy, M., Heistermann, M., Schino, G., & Wheeler, B. C. (2017). Feeling anxious? The mechanisms of vocal deception in tufted capuchin monkeys. Animal Behaviour, 130, 37-46. doi:10.1016/j.anbehav.2017.06.008

Understanding primate feelings through their personalities – a keeper insight.


Written by: Kirsty-Marie Moran

Personalities come in all shapes and forms, contributing to what makes you different from another person. It is also an intriguing aspect of ourselves that we share with our primate cousins. We can ask each other if we are well but with animals, this is not so easy. It is each individual primate personality that could be the key to understanding how primates feel and because we are unable to ask how they feel, we can only observe and record what we see. 

There are several ways in which researchers have attempted to answer questions on how primates feel such as taking blood samples, measuring hormones, or sitting observing behaviours.

However, in a recent study at the National Institutes of Health, Georgia State University, the researchers asked for the help of the keepers – after all, many of them have spent years with these animals. Who would know the personalities of the primates better?

Positive allo-grooming. Known to strength the relationship between the giver and receiver.

Positive behaviours. These brown capuchins are engaging in some allogrooming.

Using a questionnaire based on studies of people’s happiness it has been possible to assess happiness in nonhuman primates. With many studies suggesting the results are similar to that of humans. In humans, happiness and welfare are directly linked and the study at Living Links attempted to assess welfare and subjective well-being (SWB) in brown capuchins. In doing this they aimed to determine if happiness and welfare are directly relatable in capuchins.

It was found (between 10 keepers and over 200 ratings completed), that there was a high agreement on the capuchins welfare. Finding no difference between SWB and welfare ratings, which suggests that like humans SWB and welfare are linked. Also, any low ratings of SWB and welfare ratings were found to be associated with the display of stereotypic behaviours (i.e. self-grooming), indicated that a questionnaire which took on average 3minutes could be a quick and reliable form of studying welfare.

This may change the way welfare is studied in the future. With findings such as these, it may be worthwhile incorporating SWB and welfare related questionnaires into any welfare related research in the future. Especially when you are lucky to have keepers who have spent considerably longer with these animals than the researcher (in most cases) has.

 

Reference:

Robinson, L. M., Waran, N. K., Leach, M. C., Morton, F. B., Paukner, A., Lonsdorf, E., Weiss, A. (2016). Happiness is positive welfare in brown capuchins (Sapajus apella). Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 181, 145-151. doi:10.1016/j.applanim.2016.05.029

The effect you as a ‘visitor’ have on squirrel monkeys.

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Written by Kirsty-Marie Moran and Zita Polgár

Ever wondered if the animals at the zoo notice your presence? And if they do, if they mind you peering in on them?

These are very important welfare questions with many zoos attempting to answer them, including our very own here at Living Links Research Centre situated within Edinburgh Zoo. A recently published paper in the American Journal of Primatology details the results of a study examining the ‘individual differences in zoo-housed squirrel monkeys’ reactions to visitors, research participation, and personality ratings’. The study tackles the important question on whether monkeys with different personalities react differently to visitors, as well as how the size of the visiting groups influences their responses. Understanding individual differences is important because it can improve the animals welfare by catering to each individual’s needs.

During the study, the researchers recorded how long the monkeys spent by the observation window when there were small groups of visitors, large groups or no visitors. They found that the monkeys spent more time up at the window when there were large groups of visitors than when there were small groups or no visitors at the observation window. Specifically, the researchers found personality differences between the monkeys. Those who scored higher on playfulness and scored lower on cautiousness, depression and solitude were more likely to be at the window when there were visitors there.

These results suggest that zoo visitors do not have a negative impact on the squirrel monkeys but rather have a positive impact. Zoo visitors appear to be a form of enrichment, especially in those monkeys with social personalities.

The researchers speculate that the squirrel monkeys at the centre have developed this response due to a number of factors, namely that they are provided with a variety of enrichment opportunities. They frequently have positive interactions with a variety of humans through voluntary research studies and they have the option to choose from five different enclosure areas with different levels of exposure to zoo visitors.

 

Reference

Polgár, Z., Wood, L., & Haskell, M. J. (2016). Individual differences in zoo-housed squirrel monkeys’ (Saimiri sciureus) reactions to visitors, research participation, and personality ratings. American Journal of Primatology. doi:10.1002/ajp.22639

 

Monkey Medicine Revisited

Guest written by Dr Emily Messer

Monkey medicine, (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I5TDlG441gA) a behaviour where our capuchin monkeys (like their wild counterparts) will pick up and rub pungent materials like onions into their fur as a king of ‘monkey self-medication’ has been revisited recently. Funded by the Wellcome Trust, researchers from the University of St Andrews, Dr’s Mark Bowler, Emily Messer, Nicolas Claidière and Professor Andrew Whiten have recently published a new paper (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I5TDlG441gA) describing the function of the behaviour and explaining why the monkeys do this socially.Monkey Medicine Revisited 1

Dr Mark Bowler, one of the researchers on the project has created the following new video clip (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EeRsO2Dz8ZU) which follows on the original monkey medicine video to showcase the main results of the study. The researchers discovered that when socially anointing with group mates, the capuchin monkeys were focusing on inaccessible areas of their bodies, such as their upper back, so together they achieve whole body coverage. As a result, if you’re a capuchin monkey, a raw onion is just the thing to rub into your fur, and if there are bits of you that you can’t reach, then one of your group mates is around to help you reach those hard-to-reach areas. And just as when some children in a class have lice it becomes important to treat the whole class to avoid re-infection, so, the research team concluded, the social fur rubbing of the capuchins results in the whole group having their entire bodies protected.

Link: to video about the experiment: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EeRsO2Dz8ZU&feature=youtu.be

Link to paper itself: Bowler, M., Messer, E. J. E., Claidière, N., Whiten, A. (2015) Mutual medication in capuchin monkeys – Social anointing improves coverage of topically applied anti-parasite medicines. Scientific Reports 5 http://www.nature.com/articles/srep15030

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!

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What does it mean to be a Living Links researcher?

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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.

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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?

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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.