Should Monkeys Go to School?

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Showing instructional videos to monkeys in the wild has proven to be a resounding success, finds a new study that describes the first known usage of such videos in an animal’s native habitat.

Mind control may no longer be a thing of the future because researchers were able to achieve it with two monkeys.
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The study, published in the latest issue of Biology Letters, opens the door to further instruction of animals, both wild and captive.

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“I believe that videos and other instructional tools can indeed accelerate the learning of non-human primates and also other non-human animals,” lead author Tina Gunhold told Discovery News.

“Such instructional tools might even have the potential to be used in conservation programs where animals in captivity have to learn certain skills before they get released to the wild,” added Gunhold, who is a researcher in the University of Vienna’s Department of Cognitive Biology.

For the study, she and colleagues Andrew Whiten and Thomas Bugnyar produced videos showing marmosets demonstrating different foraging techniques used to open an artificial fruit. They then set up an elevated box in the Atlantic Forest of Aldeia, Pernambuco, Brazil. Marmosets living in the forest, who had never before seen the marmosets featured in the videos, could scale a viewing platform to watch the footage.

The primates “were immediately attracted to the video box,” Gunhold said. They lined up in front of it like kids fixated on a television show, with one big difference.

“They need to be constantly on alert and have to scan their surroundings for potential danger,” she explained. “Therefore, their attention span is quite short.”

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Some of the marmosets could view the entire video, but others were just shown a static image with no instructional value.

The marmosets were then given a chance to open the artificial fruit themselves. Those that watched the instructional video performed the task much more successfully. It is probable that they also taught others what they learned.

“Common marmosets represent an ideal subject species to study social learning, as they live in small family groups, show high levels of social tolerance and exhibit a cooperative breeding system, where the father and other family members take great care of the infants,” Gunhold said.

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