Do you want to be a scientist?

This month, Living Links is trialing a new Citizen Science game, inviting visitors to participate in some of the exciting research that happens here. Read on to find out more about Citizen Science and how the game works… 

As a research centre, one of our primary goals at Living Links is increasing public engagement with science. That’s why we are launching ‘Living Together’, a new Citizen Science game that allows visitors to collect and classify real life scientific data for our longstanding project about monkey welfare and enclosure use. 

“Citizen Science”, or “Community Science”, is a practice that focuses on advancing knowledge through research done by, for, and with members of the public. It aims to foster a large scientific community as the intersection between public engagement, education, and scientific enquiry. Citizen science projects are great opportunities for volunteers to collect and classify data, improving their awareness of the scientific process and opening avenues for exploration and curiosity of the field.  

The game begins by instructing the participants through various phases of ‘Citizen Scientist Training’. This includes a manual of the different monkey species here, the 5 different zones of the enclosure, and a variety of monkey counting freeze frames where visitors will be challenged to use their keen scientific eye to spot monkeys in each zone (Figure 1).

Figure 1: The different zones of the enclosure.

Following our Training, our newly fledged scientists note down in real time how many capuchins and squirrel monkeys are present in each of the 5 zones. The data and feedback collected from this trial phase will help us improve the final version of the game, in which this extensive numerical data will be analysed by our researchers. This data will reveal where each species prefers to spend time throughout the day, providing researchers and keepers with the knowledge needed to improve the welfare, enrichment, and habitat of these primates. 

We hope that this game can help visitors to gain a newfound connection with research, helping them to feel empowered and engaged with science. If this sounds interesting to you, we hope you stop by!

Written by: Emma Hearn

Serious Fun at Living Links!

Back in April, Living Links hosted an exciting Primate Pop-Up as part of the Edinburgh International Science Festival. Read on to hear about the importance of play, and how zoo visitors took part in an experiment investigating how monkeys learn through play.

Learning through Play

Play is a big part of human life, especially in childhood. It is also a behaviour found in many other animal species. The fact that play is found across the animal kingdom suggests that it must be a valuable behaviour for survival: if it were not advantageous in some way, it would not have evolved. So, the question is – why do we play, if not just for fun?

Right about now you may be wondering what exactly play is. This is a good question – one that comparative researchers have been struggling to answer for years, as common definitions of play tend to be human-centred. Graham and Burghardt (2010) developed a set of criteria that can be used to identify play in any animal species. Play behaviour (1) has no obvious purpose; (2) is enjoyable, rewarding, or spontaneous; (3) is different from day-to-day behaviours (for example, play fighting is more exaggerated than real fighting); (4) is done repeatedly; and (5) is done when relaxed.

Research at Living Links is exploring the idea that that one of the biggest values of play is that it helps us to learn. Children will play when there is something to find out – when they are curious. In a 2011 experiment, researchers gave children a toy that lit up and played music only when specific beads were placed on it. Children tested each possibility in turn, and if two beads were stuck together, they would turn the beads on their ends to try them out one at a time. This behaviour is very similar to how scientists devise experiments! Just through exploratory play, the children were able to learn and remember how the music box worked.

Figure 1: The Living Links monkeys investigating openable versus un-openable objects.

Learning Through Play at the Primate Pop-Up

Animals also like to play around with objects: look at the Living Links monkeys investigating objects that are openable versus un-openable (Figure 1). They played around with the objects in various ways: hitting them and banging them, spinning them around and even roly-polying with them! When they were later given the chance to come into the research rooms, then knew which objects were easy to open and which were difficult. However, even monkeys that did not have a chance to play were pretty good at choosing the right object, so we’ll need to make the task harder in the future!

At the Primate Pop-Up Event, we wanted to observe learning in action, by giving the Living Links monkeys an exciting new resource: crackers! The crackers either contained a jackpot (high value trail mix) or some basic vegetables. We wanted to see if the monkeys were able to learn which resource had high value. Visitors to the pop-up helped create these crackers by filling up cardboard tubes with either low value or high value treats, and then wrapping them in paper. The jackpot crackers were wrapped in black paper, and the basic crackers in brown paper. The monkeys were then given the crackers, while the visitors helped keep track of their selection.

Figure 2: The crackers used in the Primate Pop-Up.

At the beginning, the monkeys were actually scared of the jackpot crackers! This is because they were not used to the black paper and were suspicious of the novelty. So early on in the afternoon, monkeys only chose the basic crackers. However, they eventually decided to explore the black crackers, leading to an even split of choices between the two cracker types. When the same experiment was carried out on the second day of the event, there was a clear preference for the black crackers. This suggests that the monkeys learned which resource had a higher value, just through playing with them!

The results of the Primate Pop-Up experiment showed just how quickly monkeys engage with their environment and learn about it.  We also spent time with the children that visited on the day talking about a future experiment in which we could look at how monkeys learn even when there isn’t any feedback (like food rewards). You can see some of their suggestions in figure 3.

Playing can be a way of conducting informal science experiments, by trying out new behaviours and manipulations and seeing what happens. This helps build up new skills, like tool use and problem-solving. Though traditionally we might think of play as without a real purpose, the research continues to prove this idea wrong – it seems that play is some serious fun!

Figure 3: Some of the kids’ suggestions for future experiments investigating learning through play.



Monkeys, Apes and Me: Research Talks at the Zoo

Guest Blog Post by Emmie Bryant, PhD student and the University of St Andrews

Emmie Bryant
Emmie Bryant

Here at Living Links and Budongo Trail, we are proud that our research is visible to our visitors, demonstrating that our work is not invasive or detrimental to our primates and engaging the general public with current scientific research. However, in the short time a visitor spends in Living Links, only a snapshot of what we do can be seen.

That’s why on Wednesday 1st July 2015, a group of researchers at Living Links and Budongo Trail took to the Budongo Lecture Theatre to discuss their findings. Opening with an introduction from the Director of Living Links, Professor Andy Whiten, and chaired by the Deputy Director, Dr Amanda Seed, the event went on to enlighten all attending about the variety of research taking place at Living Links.

Dr Lara Wood, the Research Coordinator at Living Links and a postdoctoral researcher at the University of St Andrews, gave a visual tour of cubicle research at Living Links and explained how a series of puzzle-like tasks may help to find out if capuchin monkeys could build upon their existing knowledge to solve more complicated problems. Zita Polgár, an MSc student at the University of Edinburgh, introduced her observational work on the squirrel monkeys. Does squirrel monkey personality influence the interaction time with visitors at the viewing window? Although no specific effects of personality were apparent, a greater level of interaction between monkeys and larger groups of visitors was observed, suggesting that the monkeys might enjoy visitors!

Dr Lewis Dean, another postdoctoral researcher at the University of St Andrews, took a different approach and introduced us to a lesser-known form of research we do here: work with children! Thousands of children visit Edinburgh Zoo every year, and it is interesting for researchers to look at how essential human cognitive skills develop in our early years, potentially giving us insight into the minds of our primate relatives. Lewis’ experiment involved giving a large and complicated puzzle to small groups of children at a time, then gradually swapping new children into the group to see if the information gained would be passed along and help the group solve the more complicated levels.

A slide from Hannah Buchanan-Smith's talk concerning possible Living Links with wild field sites
A slide from Hannah Buchanan-Smith’s talk concerning possible Living Links with wild field sites

Rounding off the event, an exciting and promising new enterprise was pitched by Professor Hannah Buchanan-Smith and her PhD student, Sophia Daoudi, from the University of Stirling. Our Budongo Trail research facility is twinned with a wild chimpanzee research field station in the Budongo Forest of Uganda. As yet, Living Links has no wild counterpart. Hannah and Sophia described plans for a potential field site in Suriname, where researchers could go and study wild brown capuchins and squirrel monkeys. Subject to support from appropriate bodies, this could be a fantastic new avenue for us. We are very excited at the prospect of “Living Wild Links”, so watch this space!

This event is held annually, so if you missed it this time around, keep your eyes peeled for next year’s talks when we’ll have a fresh batch of research to tell you about![ngg_uploader id=2]



And the Winner Is…

During the Edinburgh International Science Festival we hosted an amazing event here at RZSS Edinburgh Zoo. It involved having our Animal Cultures stand up in Budongo Trail, a interactive trail around the zoo and a fierce competition of 6 soap box scientists all competing for the Living Links Public Engagement Prize. We are now happy to announce our winner is Dr Jill MacKay from Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC).

Jill MacKay Banner

Jill explained the science of animal personality to our visitors by giving a great example about how some lions can be bold and some can be shy. She discussed how we can assess this scientifically by using novel object tests and then compare the reactions of a variety of individual lions to then give us a scale of boldness or shyness in lions.

Watch Jill’s talk now.

Calling all Animal Behaviour Scientists

presnts monkeys cropDo you research animal cognition and behaviour? Do you love what you do? Then why not tell visitors at RZSS – Edinburgh Zoo how cool it is? The Living Links Public Engagement Prize is a new competition aimed at animal behaviour researchers. It is being run as part of our ‘Animal Cultures’ event in the Edinburgh International Science Festival.

The idea is simple. We give you a soapbox at the Zoo and three minutes to talk about your research. There’s no PowerPoint, no projector and only the props that you can carry and the zoo’s animals behind you. Zoo visitors will be able to vote for their favourite speaker; at the end of the weekend (April 18th-19th) we’ll total the visitors’ votes and crown our winner.

The soapbox stage will be moved around the zoo and we’ll aim to put you next to the species that you study (don’t worry if we don’t have your species, we’ll find a relevant alternative). We want as broad a range of species and topics as possible, as long as your research is on some aspect of animal behaviour, we wanMeerkat_0006t you.

See the zoo’s animal collection by clicking the link below

What’s the point of doing this?

RZSS – Edinburgh Zoo attracts around 650,000 visitors each year, this is your chance to tell some of them about your research and why it is so interesting. It’s a great opportunity for you to raise the profile of your work and of yourself.

It is also a chance to develop important public engagement and presentation skills (once you’ve done a talk with a gibbon calling in the background, that conference audience won’t seem so scary!). With public engagement becoming ever more important in funding and fellowship applications, you’ll have a head-start on building that experience.

I’m sold! How do I take part?

The first stage is to send tokaus a recording of yourself talking about your research for three minutes (don’t worry we’ll give you a few seconds margin of error). You can film this on a smartphone or with a webcam. We’re not looking for spectacular camerawork or an Oscar-winning sound track, we want to see you talking with passion about your subject. As we have limited slots at the zoo, we will choose our finalists based on their videos.

Use We Transfer to send your entry to by 27 March 2015. The finalists will be informed in the first week of April with the time of their talk. Videos will be judged on how well the research is presented and how engaging the presenter is. Please remember that you will be talking to a family audience, we won’t discriminate against any topic, but please bear this in mind when you are preparing your talk.


Finalists will get free entry to the zoo on the day of their talk and there is a £50 voucher (and personal glory) for the winner.

If you have any questions, please be in touch with Lewis Dean at or Alaina Macri

Note – Living Links has been used as an example of good practice by NCCPE

Animal Cultures at the Great British Bioscience Festival

From the 14th to the 16th of November the Living Links and St Andrews University researchers attended the Great British Bioscience Festival held in London.

Our stand entitled Animal Cultures demonstrated a wide variety of cultural research conducted with many species including; humpback whales, crows, meerkats and of course our Living Links monkeys.

Don’t worry if you didn’t make it to the festival many of our videos from the stall are available online

animal cultures chimps video shot






and the ‘When in Rome…’ interactive is also available

when rome screen shot 2






The event was a huge success with over 6,500 people visiting the marquee over the 3 days. Click on our gallery to see our researchers in action.

erica at gbbf


Animal Cultures at Edinburgh Zoo

P1010604This week the science exhibit Animal Cultures is at Edinburgh Zoo. It is based in the Budongo Trail, where you will also see our resident chimpanzees (including the two-month old baby – Velu) Have a go at a chimp puzzle, while they watch you. Will you be as good as a chimp at learning how to find the hidden food?

Explore how researchers from Scotland and further P1010609afield have used  thousands of hours of observations, advanced gadgetry and fun experiments to work out how animals, from guppies to capuchins monkeys, learn from each other and form traditions. You can try your hand at recording the behaviour of vervet monkeys, attempt to hook out some delicious grubs using crow tools and see how meerkats teach their young to catch deadly scorpions.

The stand will be in Budongo Trail lecture theatre from 10.00 to 16.00 until Sunday 28 September 2014. Each day researchers from the projects featured in the exhibit will be on hand to explain what they do and answer all your questions.

Brinkman & Berlin Brain Rap

This week we welcomed some very special guests to Living Links. Science rapper Baba Brinkman, neuroscientist Heather Berlin and a little baby Brinkman too.

The whole family got involved in enjoying some time at the centre and sharing with the zoo visitors their many talents.

Baba broke out a rap on how we all came from a common ancestor in Africa and highlighted the variety of changes that have occurred in our evolution.

baba rapping kids watching







Then Heather jumped in to tease apart what was going on in Baba’s head as he delivered a freestyle rap.

baba and heather together






And finally baby Brinkman (Hannah) wowed the crowds by demonstrating the human evolutionary trait of bipedalism on a tiny platform.

baby brinkman hand stand







Baba & Heather are performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival until Sunday August 24th

Tickets are still available for their show ‘Off the Top’

Our Research co-ordinator Dr Lewis Dean will also be a guest star in their final performance, unfortunately baby Brinkman will be having a nap at this time.



FREE Lecture – The Culture of Apes & Other Animals

Primate (37)Professor Andrew Whiten, from the St Andrews University School of Psychology and Neuroscience, will deliver this year’s Sir James Black Prize and Medal Lecture in Edinburgh.

The lecture will highlight recent discoveries in primates and other species, revealing animal culture as a “second inheritance system” that complements the better known results of genetic inheritance.

Admission is free but seats are already being snapped up, so you must be booked in advance via The Cultures of Apes and other Animals

Date : Monday  19th May 2014
Time : 6:00 pm
Location : The Royal Society of Edinburgh
22-26 George Street,

Monkeying Around At Halloween

capuchins 3 with pumpkincapuchin with pumpkin

Keepers at the Living Links Centre have created special Halloween-themed enrichment for the monkeys; spooky pumpkins, paper mache balloons and ice lollies have been hung from the trees in the outdoor enclosures.

Sophie Pearson, Team Leader for Living Links and the Budongo Trail, said:

“All of the keepers have spent several days working on the Halloween surprise for our monkeys and we love coming up with new enrichment ideas for them to enjoy. We have made spooky faces on paper mache balloons and filled Halloween cups with frozen treats. They also don’t often get pumpkin so this will be an extra special surprise for them!

“Capuchins are very intelligent and inquisitive, with their own individual personalities, and it is great fun waiting to see how they will interact with the various activities or treats they receive. By hanging the enrichment in the trees, there is an added level of complexity, which will mean the capuchins will have to use their prehensile tails and excellent climbing skills to reach their treats.

“They are also quite destructive and simply love to pull things apart, just like little children.”

The Halloween enrichment will provide both mental and physical stimulation for the monkeys, as well as provide visitors with the opportunity to see the troupe display natural behaviours normally seen in the wild. The capuchins at Edinburgh Zoo regularly receive enrichment that utilises their problem solving skills and encourages team work within the complex social hierarchy.