Some of the primate species housed at Bucknell haven’t been studied much when it comes to cognitive abilities. It’s a great chance to determine if these different species approach tasks differently so we can better understand primate cognitive evolution.

Reggie Gazes

Professor Reggie Gazes '04, psychology, uses touchscreens to study how primates think, learn and remember. After receiving her doctoral degree, she did postdoctoral work at the Atlanta Zoo, writing programs that compared various cognitive skills between primate species, including matching, numerical competence, categorizing and logic. "They'd be out there using the touchscreens in all kinds of weather, even the rare snowstorm," she says. "They seemed to enjoy the challenge."

Gazes, who majored in animal behavior at Bucknell, holds a joint appointment in the animal behavior program. She continues her research in Bucknell's primate lab because of its diversity of species. "We have hamadryas baboons, macaques, brown capuchins and squirrel monkeys," she says. "Unlike chimps and rhesus monkeys, some of primate species housed at Bucknell haven't been studied much when it comes to cognitive abilities. It's a great chance to determine if these different species approach tasks differently so we can better understand primate cognitive evolution."

Gazes points out two advantages to Bucknell's lab: The primates are housed in groups, which fosters a relatively natural social arrangement for them; and they are microchipped, which allows Gazes and her team to remotely monitor each animal's cognitive performance. "They're free to use the touchscreens 24/7," she says. "We don't have to isolate any of them from the group, which alpha males often find upsetting. We don't even have to be on hand to collect the data."

As convenient as it is to be able to gather data from a distance, Gazes' students will be required to spend a lot of time in the lab as well. "There's still nothing like observing the animals in person for inspiring new questions," she says.

Activities on the touchscreens will evolve as the primates learn to adapt to the changing rules and activities. Because there's no way to know in advance where the animals' skills might take them, Gazes plans to teach her students to write their own experimental programs. "Knowing a programming language is a skill every young person should have anyway. It's hard to imagine a field where it wouldn't come in handy."

Posted Sept. 29, 2014

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