Written by Sophia Daoudi
Walking through Living Links you may have either seen someone industriously walking around with a clipboard and binoculars or in one of the monkey interview rooms dressed up in a boiler suit. These are the researchers at Living Links. Researchers upstairs will usually be observational researchers and downstairs, experimental researchers, studying the monkeys cognitive abilities (e.g. how good is their memory), prosocial behaviour (are they able to share) or their ability to use tools.
All research is approved by RZSS Edinburgh Zoo and Scottish Primate Research Group. The current Living Links team include, Donald Gow- Animal Research and Team Leader, Dr. Lara Wood- Research Coordinator, and Prof Andrew Whiten- Scientific Director. A lot of time and effort goes into the approval process, so it’s really important to do thorough background reading and know your subject area well. A successful applicant then goes through all the necessary induction and training at Living Links, receives a research badge and start date and finally it feels official.
Now comes the tricky part, it is essential that we know who is who. I remember the first time that I studied the capuchins and squirrel monkeys back in 2009, the groups were smaller then, but even so I thought “how on earth am I going to learn all of these monkeys?”
Initially they all looked the same and I would spend hours on the observation deck looking at them. The more I watched them, the more I realised that they did, indeed, look different and have their own individual personalities. Looking back it now seems silly to think that they all looked the same. For instance, Junon (one of the adult female capuchins from the East group) has a white outline of fur around her face, she is quite gentle and moves cautiously.
Often the easiest individuals to identify in each group, for both species, are the alpha males, as they are usually the largest. Nowadays, there are around 66 squirrel and capuchin monkeys with babies being born throughout the year. Thankfully, the squirrel monkey each have an individually recognisable tag, but you still need to learn which colour represents which individual before you have any chance of passing the id test.
Then the fun begins, and even though there can be frustrations, such as the monkey you are watching disappears half way through the study period or you note something down and when you look back you can no longer locate them, getting to observe the monkeys in their day-to-day lives is such as wonderful experience and there is never a dull moment.
So if you are thinking of sending in a research proposal, hopefully, now you’ll have a bit more of an idea of what goes on and remember as a researcher you need to be flexible and allow enough time to collect all of your data, this way if/when, you have a “bad” day, you are less likely to panic with looming deadlines. Getting to observe the monkeys in their day-to-day lives was such a wonderful experience and there was never a dull moment. I wish I could do it all again. Now I have the joys of analysis to turn to but I’ll save that for a whole other blog.