Marwell Monkeys Given Touch-Screen Computer

7 November 2013, 06:55

Using touch screen computers has helped a group of monkeys relax, a new study by University of Portsmouth scientists shows.

The researchers say 'not only does the opportunity to use touch screens interest and challenge the animals, it also keeps the dominant members of the group busy, which mirrors life in the wild and relieves social tension'.

The study took place with a social group of Sulawesi crested macaques at Marwell Wildlife near Winchester. The scientists taught this rare species to operate computer touch screens so they can conduct studies to understand their cognition and communication.

Scientists found that providing cognitive challenges for the macaques, using touch screen computers, has improved the group’s cohesion and reduced tensions while increasing friendly behaviours.

Lead scientist on the study, Jamie Whitehouse, from the University’s Department of Psychology, said:

“Having one individual leave the group mimics conditions in the wild when it’s common for a lone macaque to break off and return later. At Marwell it’s usually the dominant macaques leaving the group to use the touch screens, which leaves the others to enjoy some time without the top ranking animals.”

Just like humans and many other primates, macaques use complex social interactions. Sulawesi crested macaques, native to Indonesia, employ sophisticated and subtle communication tools, relying on many different facial expressions, body positioning and vocalisations to make themselves understood.

Mr Whitehouse said:

“We can use our understanding of their social behavior to work out whether taking part in the studies is affecting their welfare.”

The research shows that when dominant individuals leave the group, the ‘lipsmacking’ behaviour of the other macaques increases – where they protrude their lips and then smack them together repeatedly.

Mr Whitehouse said:

“This behaviour is a friendly gesture between the macaques, which they use to maintain their social bonds. The fact that this increases on days when they are taking part in our studies, shows that our research is having a positive effect on the group.”

The macaques live in their social group and can voluntarily enter a specialised research area, separate from the researcher. The animals are free to end the sessions whenever they like and return to their daily activities. They receive food treats – tiny amounts of healthy titbits – when they take part in the studies.

The research paper ‘The impact of cognitive testing on the welfare of group housed primates’ was published in the journal PLOS ONE.