First study published in "ManyPrimates" project

29. October 2019

In order to investigate evolutionary questions, scientists need the largest and most versatile random samples possible. If these cannot be reached in one place, research institutions can support each other. Because of this, “ManyPrimates” was created: a project that aims to improve the global infrastructure for primate research. The initiators are researchers from the Leipzig Research Centre for Early Childhood Development (LFE) at the University of Leipzig, the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology and Leipzig Zoo. The first study of “ManyPrimates” has just been published in the journal PLOS ONE.

The Wolfgang Köhler Primate Research Centre is known as “Pongoland” in Leipzig Zoo. While visitors can see bonobos, chimpanzees, orang-utans, and gorillas, this place is also a research station for evolutionary anthropologists. However, the scientists are confronted with a problem that is also present in comparable research stations: no institution of this kind accommodates enough primate species to answer fundamental evolutionary questions.

Dr. Manuel Bohn from LFE knows this challenge: “During my doctoral thesis, I was lucky enough to be able to do observation studies with all four great ape species in Pongoland. But although this is a worldwide unique situation, I was limited to the comparison between these species. But in order to answer the big evolutionary questions meaningfully, a comparison between several dozen species is needed”.

Together with ten other primate research stations, the Leipzig scientists have therefore launched the “ManyPrimates” project. In cooperation with the German Primate Research Center in Göttingen, the Zoo in Edinburgh, Scotland, the Kenyan Sweetwaters Chimpanzee Sanctuary in Nanyuki and the US Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, among others, a global infrastructure has been created that makes international research projects possible. “We have already agreed on a list of feasible questions in the group of institutions involved so far and have now carried out a first study on the short-term memory of primates,” says Bohn. “The same study was carried out at the eleven research stations with almost 180 primates of twelve species. The sample was therefore much larger than in normal studies with primates.

In the course of the study, a person hid a reward under one of three cups. Then they waited a short time before the primates could decide on a cup. The time between hiding and deciding was then systematically varied. It turned out that primates with a longer waiting time remembered less well the cup under which the food was hidden. However, it was also seen that the task was not equally difficult for all species. Thus chimpanzees still performed very well even with a long waiting time, whereas squirrel monkeys had great problems with it. According to Bohn, the question now arises to what extent these differences can be explained by the relationship to each other. First results show that closely related species, for example chimpanzees and bonobos, achieved similar results.

The summary of the developmental psychologist from the University of Leipzig, who is also working at the Language and Cognition Lab at Stanford University (USA), on the first collaboration in the “ManyPrimates” project is extremely positive. “It works! A worldwide cooperation between primate researchers is possible. Resources can be pooled and we can collect data on a scale that was not possible before”. Bohn adds that there has been a lot of positive feedback from the scientific community. “Many colleagues told us that this was exactly the network that the field needed. After the success of the first study, I absolutely agree.”

Further cooperation partners are to be acquired in the future. Although the sample was already much larger than usual, even more extensive data sets are needed to answer evolutionary questions.

Link to the study in the journal PLOS ONE:
Establishing an infrastructure for collaboration in primate cognition research
DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0223675 [Transfer title to Citavi project on the basis of this DOI]

The press announcement was published on the website of the University of Leipzig. https://www.uni-leipzig.de/newsdetail/artikel/leipziger-primatenforschende-initiieren-weltweite-zusammenarbeit-2019-10-29/

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