Rare monkeys to use touch screens in University of Portsmouth research

TOUCH Macaque monkeys at Marwell Zoo learn to use a touch screen in exchange for a treat. The back of the screen can be seen  as it faces into their cage.  Picture: Paul Jacobs (114294-4)
TOUCH Macaque monkeys at Marwell Zoo learn to use a touch screen in exchange for a treat. The back of the screen can be seen as it faces into their cage. Picture: Paul Jacobs (114294-4)
Stuart Burnham with 12-year-old Andrew Impey and his mum, Kirstine Burnham   Picture: Habibur Rahman

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THEY may be monkeying around with a bit of smart technology – but these five primates at Marwell are at the centre of pioneering research led by University of Portsmouth experts.

Seven-year-old Baik and his female companions Drusilla, Satan, Willow and Mary, are being taught how to use touch screens to help investigate their memory, communication and emotions.

UP CLOSE A macaque monkey at Marwell Zoo.  (114294-1)

UP CLOSE A macaque monkey at Marwell Zoo. (114294-1)

The endangered crested macaques from Indonesia are already adept at playing snap which they have been practising for months in the world’s first cognitive study centre for their kind.

And in time it is hoped they will recognise facial expressions and gestures, which could help explain how primates and humans have developed good social skills.

Dr Bridget Waller, lead scientist from the university’s department of psychology, said: ‘This is an incredibly exciting project as it gives us a direct window into the macaques’ understanding.

‘Now they are learning the concept of snap, but in future we can use more meaningful stimuli like facial expressions in different animals.

‘We could even use this to find out how they feel about their captive environment – it could be powerful from the welfare perspective.’

She added: ‘These macaques are critically endangered and we know very little about their behaviour and psychology.

‘Learning more about their social interactions will allow us to understand how and why primates, including humans, have evolved such good social skills.’

Scientists are working in a glassed test area at the zoo which can be seen by visitors.

The monkeys are free to end the sessions whenever they like.

Jerome Micheletta, 27, a final year PhD student, said: ‘I have observed the macaques in the wild so it is great to have a more controlled environment to complement that work.

‘Compared with other macaque species, these are very tolerant and aren’t as strict with hierarchy and family groups.

‘I’m enjoying their different personalities.

‘Baik is quite bold and not particularly bright in the way he behaves.

‘The females are a bit more cautious.’