"For our students to get hands-on experience in a facility like this is invaluable."

With five hamadryas baboons, three lion-tailed macaques, 16 brown capuchins and 10 squirrel monkeys, the primate labs at Bucknell are part of an animal behavior program unique to the undergraduate level.

"For our students to get hands-on experience in a facility like this is invaluable," says Peter Judge, professor of psychology and animal behavior, and director of the animal behavior program. "They leave here well prepared for fieldwork or graduate school. In fact, my honors students will have written and defended a thesis."

Some of Judge's students are determining how well squirrel monkeys can match images on a touch screen. As the monkeys show an aptitude for matching, the images on screen become more and more complex – from simple geometric shapes to astrological symbols to whatever the students decide to show them. Judge explains that although chimpanzees have been matching on screen images for years, squirrel monkeys had never before demonstrated this ability. 

Smart monkeys. But are they smart enough to master the art of gestural communication? Judge and his students set up an experiment in which two monkeys face each other in an apparatus. There are two cups in the space between them. One has a treat in it, but only one of the monkeys can see which that would be. As the informed monkey reaches for the cup of interest, both cups are moved toward the other monkey. When the cups are in reach, is the correct one chosen? 

"Not always," Judge says with a laugh. "Some monkeys get it right away and others never seem to catch on." He explains that for the ones who do get it, the question becomes how subtle can the communication be? And if it's a human doing the gesturing, will the message still come through?

Another important area of study for Judge and his students is conflict, and more importantly, conflict resolution. Judge explains that when one baboon acts in a hostile way toward another it is very interesting to observe the steps the wronged baboon will take toward reconciliation. "The balance of the group is thrown off by acts of aggression," he says. "Individual baboons express their anxiety through scratching themselves. When reconciliation is achieved, that behavior subsides. The stability of the group depends on reconciliation."

Posted September 26, 2013

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