Graduate Students Primate Behavior

Nina Shanley, UT Michale E. Keeling Center for Comparative Medicine and Research

Primate work is notoriously difficult to come by so, by doing an internship I hoped to gain experience and references to ease my entrance into the field. Because of my interests in cognition, which relies heavily on behavioral research, my main goal was to familiarize myself with the methods used in primate behavioral research.  While I had taken some classes in primatology, I felt unfamiliar with the actual methods of research design, data collection, and data analysis.

I chose the Keeling Center—a branch of The University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center—because I had heard of the center’s progressive behavioral enrichment department. However, the center is primarily a biomedical research facility which provides animals for such studies. This knowledge concerned me because I was unsure as to how I would adapt to working in such an environment. In answer to my concerns Dr. Beth Erhart assured that the facility was very humane and that I would enjoy my time at the facility if I chose to intern there. Also, because the center houses new world and old world monkeys as well as chimpanzees, I thought it would be a great place to learn about the differences in the behavior of different primate species.

One of the focuses of the facility is to care for the psychological well-being of the primates used in biomedical research. Indeed, when the center first opened, it was one of the first research facilities to employ a dedicated behaviorist to help achieve the goal of bettering the lives of the primates the facility would host. This appointment set the tone for the facility’s current status as a leader in the advancement of primate welfare in biomedicine. While I was interning at the facility they hosted a primate training and enrichment workshop attended by professionals from both commercial and educational biomedical research facilities, zoos, and the United States military. The work at the Keeling Center has become a valuable resource for other facilities looking to improve their own enrichment programs.

My duties at the Keeling Center actually changed a few times during the course of my internship there, which was wonderful because I got a broader view of behavioral research through exposure to several studies in the various colonies. My internship took place under the supervision of the manager of the Behavioral Care and Enrichment staff. Her department manages the psychological welfare of all the primates at the facility through training and behavioral enrichment. My first task was to familiarize myself with the work she and her staff do. Under their supervision, I learned about primate enrichment, which serves to encourage species-typical and/or time-consuming behaviors in captive primates. For instance, in the chimpanzee colony I made “apple-feeders”—large red balls with holes in them that I filled with sliced apples. These feeders encourage the chimpanzees to forage for food, and provide the time-consuming challenge of having to manipulate the device in a specific way in order to get the apples out. While not an exact replica of natural behaviors, it does mimic the behavior of wild chimpanzees by stimulating their ability to figure out difficult tasks in order to obtain preferred food items.

By making and distributing enrichment in the different colonies, I also learned some of the behavioral differences between the species and how the Enrichment Staff modifies devices to cater to those differences. I also learned that differences in species-typical behavior are accounted for in the different methods of distribution between the colonies. In the squirrel and rhesus colonies, devices are distributed one per several animals. In this manner the species’ dominance hierarchies are accounted for. In contrast, the chimpanzees typically receive one device per individual in order to avoid competition that can lead to fighting and injury.

Once I became familiar with the enrichment program, I was trained to do assessments of the enrichment items in the squirrel monkey colony for an internal study. The goal of the study was to determine how the animals were using the devices and determine whether or not they should be modified. To do this, the study called for one-hour observation sessions, which required more training for me. In order to ensure that the data I collected was usable, the enrichment staff and I had to establish inter-observer reliability. To do this I was required to do a few supervised mock observation sessions in the squirrel monkey colony. We would pass out enrichment then do an hour-long observation together. The one-hour sessions used instantaneous observations, meaning after every fifteen seconds we recorded whether or not the monkeys were foraging from the device or manipulating the device. Determining reliability was actually very difficult in this project because of the fifteen-second intervals: if one of us looked up one second later than the other it would lead to different data because squirrel monkeys are such fast-moving primates. To overcome this we had to sometimes call out what we saw before and after what we actually recorded to ensure that we were attuned to the same behaviors. Once reliability was established, I was allowed to collect the data on my own.

By completing an internship with the Michale E. Keeling Center for Comparative Medicine and Research, I gained a broader understanding of primate research and primate behavior. By assisting in studies conducted during my time at the center I was able to more fully familiarize myself with the methods of data collection used in primate research. By doing so, I now also understand how to ensure the data is reliable, and the amount of time required to gather data. Through hands-on experience I also learned that there are certain considerations to be made during the research design process that are specific to primate research, such as the animals’ psychological well-being and the potential risk to human observers. Because the facility houses such a wide variety of non-human primates, I now feel more comfortable with the wide spectrum of primate behavior.

I recommend that any student interested in an internship with the Center have a basic understanding of the safety risks that may arise in working with primates. During my time at the facility I was pegged square in the back with what I can only hope was a dirt clod, received multiple mouthfuls of water to the face, and was bitten on the finger by a squirrel monkey. None of these occurrences were out of the ordinary, and students who endeavor to work at the facility must be prepared for such happenings.

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