Blast from the past: Age Differences in Activty Budgets of Captive Squirrel Monkeys (i.e. my first anthrozoological research project!)

Not sure if I should include “parrot wrangling” in my activity categories.

Originally posted 2012, scroll to the bottom for the final update!

So now that my topic has officially been approved, I thought I would share my primate behavior research with the interwebs!

I am going to be working with Saimiri sciureus, or squirrel monkeys. They are small, diurnal anthropoid primates found in the rainforests of Central and South America!

They are also adorable- er I mean their facial features are similar to that of a juvenile human and therefore cause me to feel affection. Yeah. Science.

Anyway, I plan on observing the population of squirrel monkeys at the Norfolk Zoo for ten hours. I will be using instantaneous/scan sampling (where I record the behavior of the group at regular time intervals) to collect data on how these little guys spend their time. Or, put another way, to create an Activity Budget.

What’s that, reader? Why would I choose to study how captive squirrel monkeys spend their time? What are the larger implications of such a study? Why, I am so glad you asked. One of the major problems zoos face (and are sometimes criticized for) is the fact that captive animals behave differently than their wild counterparts. This often includes captive animals engaging in “abnormal” behaviors (see Birkett and Newton-Fisher’s article “How Abnormal is the Behavior of Captive, Zoo-Living Chimpanzees” for an example).  Therefore, a major goal for any zoo-keeper or trainer worth their salt is to try and help the animals they care for live in a way more like how they would in the wild. A good way to compare the behavior of zoo animals with that of wild populations is to look at their activity budgets. This also provides a good measuring stick when testing to see if an enrichment technique is working (see Fekete, Norcross, and Newman’s article “Artificial turf foraging boards as environmental enrichment for pair-housed female squirrel monkeys”).

Now, of course my research is just a simple 12 page paper assignment. I will not have the time or wherewithal to compare my findings with an analogous wild population or institute any new enrichment techniques. Instead I intend to compare the budgets of male and female group members, and test to see if there is a statistical difference in the amount of time they spend on a given activity. This will not change the world or the situation of any bored animals in zoos, but this will provide me with some much-needed experience in observing and recording the behavior of animals in real-time. Skills that I will hopefully use one day to understand, protect, and better the lives of animals like the squirrel monkey.

That’s the plan anyway.

Update 10/24/19

Wow. A lot has happened in 7 years! Since doing this project, I’ve gone onto a ton of interesting work–but I still love the simplicity of the study design. Anywho, what did I actually find? Glad you asked.

Through some simple statistics (chi-square analysis, for my fellow nerds), I found important differences in how the juvenile and adult monkeys spent their time in the zoo. Basically, kids played more and adults spent a bit more time resting (big mood, tbh) and uh–to put it delicately, putting on some Marvin Gaye and spending adult time together. These conclusions make sense, and showed that how the way individuals of the same species spend their time can vary between age classes.

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