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Primates are to be taught how to use computer touch screens in a study to better understand their memory, communication and emotions.
Marwell Wildlife, near Winchester, Hampshire, and the University of Portsmouth have joined forces to open the world's first cognitive study centre for the endangered Sulawesi crested macaques from Indonesia.
The animals will learn to operate computer touch screens, allowing scientists to investigate fundamental aspects of their cognition.
The centre has been built alongside Marwell Wildlife's Sulawesi crested macaque island.
Scientists will work in a glassed test area, which is on direct public view so visitors will have the opportunity to view the studies while they take place.
"The animals can make choices using the touch screens and this offers us a direct window into their understanding,'' said lead scientist Dr Bridget Waller, from the university's department of psychology.
"It allows us to ask scientific questions that can't be addressed by observational studies alone. The macaque studies will give us a better understanding of how the macaques communicate their perception of the world, their emotions and social relationships."
Just like humans and many other primates, macaques use complex social interactions. They employ sophisticated and subtle communication tools, relying on many different facial expressions, body positioning and vocalisations to make themselves understood.
At Marwell Wildlife 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 when they take part in the studies.
"This method is an excellent way to study the animals because they are curious about the tasks and keen to participate in activities with the researchers," said Dr Waller.
"Sulawesi crested macaques are critically endangered and we know very little about their behaviour and psychology. Understanding more about their social interactions, from the results of the touch screen work, will allow us to understand how and why primates, including humans, have evolved such good social skills."