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Zoo visitors can watch research into orangutan emotions

Researchers from Leiden University are working with Ouwehands Zoo to improve our understanding of emotions and intelligence in orangutans. Visitors to the zoo can now watch orangutans as they play with computer touch screens.

As the orangutans do computer tasks, the researchers look at how they communicate their feelings, says lead researcher and cognitive psychologist Mariska Kret. ‘This is the first time this kind of research has been on view to the general public. People can see how an orangutan performs computer tasks and looks at its peers’ emotions in the process, which is unique.’

Professor Mariska Kret

The orangutans choose for themselves whether they take part in this new activity, Kret emphasises. ‘They go and sit at the computer. They won’t do it if they don’t want to.’ Previous research has shown that apes that carry out computer tasks experience less stress. ‘It’s a welcome distraction for them too. It challenges them and is a form of relaxation.’

During the computer task, the apes can make certain choices on a touchscreen. An eye tracker, a special camera that follows eye movements, records what exactly the apes look at. Until now, this research had been done in night enclosures that were away from the public. Kret thinks it’s high time we all have a chance to watch.

Join in

By making the research public, the researchers hope that visitors will learn more about orangutans. In the near future, they also want to get the visitors to do some computer tasks themselves. This will give visitors a better idea of what research entails and enable them to contribute to the study.

Kret’s research shows that great apes have complex emotions and take account of their peers’ emotions. Kret: ‘We want to show how clever orangutans are and how rich their personalities are. This will hopefully increase the respect for these animals and have a positive effect on the protection of their kind in the wild.’

Tinder for apes

Various researchers within Kret’s research group are involved in the project. PhD candidate Tonko Zijlstra is researching whether orangutans at the zoo mirror a smile. ‘Do they do so just like humans do? Emotions are very contagious for us, but what about in the great apes?’ says Kret.

PhD candidate Tom Roth is researching what orangutans find attractive in each other. He hopes to be able to predict whether or not a female orangutan will find a male attractive. Kret: ‘Females are sometimes transferred to another zoo as part of a breeding programme. So far this was based on a genetic profile, but no account is taken of personal preference. We want to look at if we can predict whether there will be a match. The project therefore has a very direct application in terms of improving animal welfare.’ This research has been dubbed ‘Tinder for apes’ by the media but Kret says it’s more complicated than the dating app for humans.

Text: Tom Janssen
Photo: Unsplash

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