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

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