Illinois zoo snow monkeys dabble in computer research

Tuesday, September 13, 2016
Monkeys dabble in computer research
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Snow monkeys at Lincoln Park Zoo can press colored dots to get special treats as part of a research project.

CHICAGO -- Japanese snow monkeys, or macaques, at Lincoln Park Zoo are participating in computer touch screen research. And the public can check it out daily.

The zoo's Regenstein Macaque Forest is only a year and half old but is already becoming one of the most popular exhibits. The troupe has grown from eight original monkeys to 12.

As part of the research, the monkeys have to touch colored dots to get a special treat. The zoo is trying to get a deeper look into how the monkeys think and how much they can learn.

It all happens in a large, glass booth in the viewing area. The monkeys enter through swinging doors and then head for the computer screens. Then, they have to press a dot to get a treat.

"The animals have learned, for example, they need to touch yellow dot, red dot, blue dot, in that order, no matter where they show up on the screen each time," said Maureen Leahy, the zoo's curator of primates.

The monkeys don't have to join in. It's up to them. However, so far, more and more are catching on and playing the game.

"They hear ding, which means right answer and a small reward like a blueberry comes down the tube right to them," Leahy asid.

The snow monkeys are learning a lot, but so is the zoo staff.

"I have been extraordinarily impressed by their eagerness," Leahy said. "They're just a very bold, inquisitive species in general ... They don't have to come over if they don't want to. But sometimes they will not only come over but they're participating and they're forgoing the treats that are coming up for the correct answers because they just want to keep learning. ... They're playing the game."

The touch-screen research can be seen at 11:30 a.m. Mondays through Fridays.