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Living Links - a decade on

29/11/2018 in Edinburgh Zoo

Capuchin monkey at RZSS Living Links

How can primates help us understand the origins of the human mind? This is a question occupying scientists based at Edinburgh Zoo, where capuchin and squirrel monkeys provide a tantalising window into both our past and future.

The Living Links to Human Evolution Research Centre, a partnership between the University of St Andrews and the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, celebrates its 10th anniversary this week.

For the past decade, our collaboration has supported research by scientists at the universities of St Andrews, Stirling, Edinburgh and Abertay, who are all part of the Scottish Primate Research Group and study primate behaviour in the wild and captivity. ‘Living Links’ is also affiliated with the zoo’s Budongo Trail, where scientists study chimpanzees.

Visitors to Living Links will often see researchers working with capuchin and squirrel monkeys. To the untrained eye, it may look as though we are simply offering the monkeys treats and observing their behaviour. 

In fact, what we are doing is asking questions that range from more applied work concerning behaviour and welfare to what we can learn about cognitive evolution by comparing these monkeys with each other, other non-human primates, human children and other animals. Across the world, there are very few partnerships with zoos that study primates in this way.

Squirrel monkey at RZSS Living Links

Some applications of our work are immediate, such as designing better enclosures for captive primates. Other benefits are societal, as we have a fantastic opportunity to engage the public with science as our research is in full view and gives a glimpse of the monkeys’ behaviour and problem-solving abilities.

Ultimately, we hope to gain a richer understanding of intelligence, the evolution of the mind and the origins of human thinking.  We humans are primates, so monkeys and apes are our closest animal relatives. They are the ‘living link’ to the ancestors from which we evolved.

This work also has implications for designing intelligent machines (AI) and for understanding how the mind works. Knowing what something is built for and from can be very helpful when trying to reverse engineer or fix it if it goes wrong.

Our partnership is really into its stride now and we can expect big things over the next 10 years. One project we are involved with is Many Primates, which brings together scientists from around the world to understand more about how the primate mind has evolved across different lineages.

This will help us understand what drives evolutionary change: Is it living in a complex social group? Being an opportunist? Using tools? A combination? The zoo’s capuchin and squirrel monkeys are integral to this work because they are closely-related and live together in the wild, yet we see interesting differences between their brains, behaviour and performance on cognitive tests.

This is a hugely exciting area of research and, while we have achieved a great deal over the past decade, in many ways we are only just getting started. Watch this space!

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