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Edinburgh Zoo keepers supporting discovery at the Budongo Research Unit

12/04/2024 in Edinburgh Zoo

In partnership with the University of St Andrews, the Budongo Research Unit (BRU) based in Edinburgh Zoo’s Budongo Trail, aims to advance scientific knowledge of chimpanzee cognition and behaviour 

The interactive, voluntary research uses varied technologies and methods, allowing researchers insight into how chimpanzees see the world around them. 

University of St Andrews Research Fellow Dr Emma McEwen recently had a paper published exploring how chimps think about each other’s needs during interactions. Keepers in the Budongo team at the zoo supported this research and team leader Callum Gibson co-authored the paper.

What is the paper about? 

This study explored whether chimpanzee behaviour would reflect the patterns of human behaviour when working together to achieve a task. At the zoo’s BRU and the Wolfgang Köhler Primate Research Centre in Leipzig Zoo, researchers studied what the chimps did when passing a tool, when different constraints were in place. 

Dr Emma McEwen said “Imagine cooking a meal with someone and you need to pass them a spoon to stir a pot – would you pass it to their spare hand, or to the hand they’re already using to hold the salt? Humans tend to pass objects to one another in an accommodating way, considering each other’s needs during interactions. Our research shows that chimpanzees do this too, at least when they stand to gain something for themselves.

How were the Budongo keepers involved? 

Our Budongo keeper team helped to support the study, taking part in the tasks with the chimpanzees. 

Dr McEwen continued We were lucky enough in this research to have some of the chimp keepers involved in the data collection.  

“With the expertise of the team, we were able to encourage the chimpanzees to hand the tools over in exchange for tasty treats. As the keepers observe and care for the chimps every day, they often have great ideas of how to make the research enjoyable and how to implement additional training steps for any aspects of the research that the chimps find challenging. 

Callum Gibson, Budongo team leader at Edinburgh Zoo said “Three of our keeping team assisted with this project as we work closely with the chimps every day. The chimpanzee's are free to come and go as they please from the research area, so we had to be patient on certain days when they were busy enjoying other spaces in their habitat. 

Our role was to ask for a stick in various situations, following Emma's guidance, to see if they would pass the stick to our free hand and recognise that it was easier for us to accept it in the free hand than the hand holding an object. 

We first passed the chimp a small stick down a tube then presented our hands in the required format, it was then on the chimp to pass the stick back to us through a hole in the Perspex, some got this immediately but others did not. Once the chimp had handed us the stick, in either hand, we then used it to retrieve a piece of food from a tube and then gave it to the chimp as a reward. 

It was an incredible opportunity to offer support to Emma with this project and it was very interesting to see how the chimpanzees made decisions in different environments.

What were the findings? 

This study showed similar behaviour in chimpanzees to what we expect when humans work together to achieve an outcome, showing we may share common approaches to social interactions.

Dr McEwen said “Across a series of experiments, chimps flexibly adjusted how they passed a tool to an experimenter, adapting to the experimenter’s constraints. This simple behaviour during object handovers could be part of the building blocks of more complex social cognition, and smoothly interacting in this way could be a first step to more complicated social endeavours.

“We have shown that humans and chimpanzees may share common cognitive mechanisms or predispositions that support social interactions.”

Thanks to players of People’s Postcode Lottery, who have helped support RZSS’s vital wildlife conservation and research projects in Scotland and around the world, over their years of support. 

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