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£1.6m ‘living links’ to human evolution

An innovative partnership between four Scottish Universities and Edinburgh Zoo is set to create a unique study centre dedicated to better understanding our close primate relatives.

Thanks to a grant of 1.6M Pounds from the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council (SHEFC), the ‘Living Links to Human Evolution’ Centre will allow a group of primatologists from the Universities of St Andrews, Stirling, Edinburgh and Abertay, already internationally renowned for their studies of wild monkeys and apes, to focus on more detailed aspects of behaviour closer to home.

In an imaginative new move, the Centre will be built not at a University, but at Edinburgh Zoo. Each of two large enclosures will be home to two species of monkeys, recreating the mixed-species communities that are natural in the wild. Studies will range over numerous fascinating topics such as tool use, communication, social relationships and intelligence.

Professor Andrew Whiten and Dr Klaus Zuberbühler of the University of St Andrews, who led the bid for SHEFC funding, said that locating the Centre in Edinburgh Zoo makes a lot of sense.

Professor Whiten explained: “There are benefits all round. The Zoo will get two wonderful new naturalistic primate exhibits and provide all the animal care at which they are so expert, while the University researchers can concentrate on ensuring the highest quality science.”

“We also think the primates themselves will benefit from the joining together of these two different kinds of expertise. Members of the Scottish Primate Research Group have great experience of what life is like for primates in the wild, and our aim here is to recreate those conditions as far as possible. Then we can go on to answer questions raised by what we have seen in the forest, but are difficult to answer there”.

An example comes from a recently completed study by Katie Slocombe and Dr Klaus Zuberbühler, also of St Andrews. Their observations of the chimpanzees at Edinburgh Zoo suggested these primates use different types of screams to indicate their social role during a conflict, particularly whether callers are aggressors or victims. A follow-up study of wild chimpanzees in Budongo Forest, Uganda, confirmed the Edinburgh findings by revealing consistent differences in the acoustics of the screams depending on the social role. So, now, the scientists are developing a study playing recorded calls to Zoo chimps to investigate if listeners are influenced by them in deciding whether to intervene in ongoing social conflicts. This research illustrates how behavioural observations made at the Zoo can lead to interesting fieldwork, which can in turn lead to simple, elegant behavioural experiments that give us greater insight into primates’ lives, and does so in a way that actually makes the! animals’ days more enriched and interesting, like their wild- living counterparts.

In a development complementary to the creation of the Centre, The Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS), the registered charity who owns the Zoo, will be funding a research programme on the primates and ecology of the Budongo Forest. The Universities and RZSS are seeing their collaboration as a two-way partnership, in which studies in the Zoo and in the wild reinforce each other and lead to a much deeper understanding of the animals’ behaviour, welfare and conservation needs. Important to both parties is the fact that the world-class scientific work now anticipated from this purpose- built Centre will take place directly in the public’s view.

“Science too often gets a bad press these days” commented Professor Whiten, “but typically we find people are fascinated by the primates we study and what our scientific work has discovered about them. The new Centre will be a wonderful opportunity to show the public how good science operates and what it can tell us.

“The name for the new Centre emphasises that what we are learning about the behaviour and psychology of monkeys and apes gives us a special perspective on what it means to be human, and how we, as one more primate, got to be the way we are”.

ENDS

NOTE TO EDITORS

PROFESSOR WHITEN CAN BE CONTACTED ON TELEPHONE 01334 462073 OR AFTER 6PM TONIGHT ON 01334 828551.

PICTURE EDITORS:

JPEGS DEMONSTRATING THE RESEARCH ARE AVAILABLE FROM THE UNIVERSITY OF ST ANDREWS PRESS OFFICE – TEL 01334 462529 / 467227.

The Scottish Primate Research Group The Scottish Primate Research Group (SPRG) was established in 1987 by researchers with shared interests at Edinburgh, St Andrews and Stirling. In 1996 Abertay was included. Currently SPRG includes twelve core academic staff, and a research community of two dozen staff and postgraduates. Research on the behaviour and ecology of wild primates, mainly in Africa and S. America, is complemented by studies of captive primates to elucidate complementary questions about behaviour and cognition, through both observation and behavioural experiments. No SPRG research is invasive. SPRG has gradually risen in prominence so that now, it is unmatched in its scale anywhere in the UK and represents one of the two main centres in Europe for such work. Members of SPRG have international reputations for their discoveries.

The Royal Zoological Society of Scotland RZSS, a registered charity, runs both Edinburgh Zoo and the Highland Wildlife Park. The Zoo, with over half-a-million visitors annually, is Scotland’s second biggest tourist attraction. RZSS’s mission is ‘to inspire and excite visitors with the wonder of living animals, and so to promote the conservation of threatened species and habitats’. The Zoo’s collection extends to approximately 250 species of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibia and invertebrates. It has a rich collection of primates that include 23 species, over half of which are bred as part of the European Endangered Species Programme.

FOR FURTHER INFORMATION David Windmill, Chief Executive of the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS) – 0131 314 0302/1

Professor Wilson Sibbett, Chief Scientific Adviser to the Scottish Executive and Chair of the Scottish Science Advisory Panel – 01334 463100 Dr Robert Barton, President, Primate Society of Great Britain – 0191 374 2851

Professor Dorothy Fragaszy, outgoing President of the International Primatological Society – 001 706 769 9240

 

ENDS

Issued by Beattie Media On behalf of the University of St Andrews For more information, please contact Claire Grainger, Press Officer – 01334 462529, 07730 415 015 or cg24@st-andrews.ac.uk Ref: press releases/edzoo View the latest University news at http://www.st-andrews.ac.uk

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