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Orangutan's eyes may hold clues to better life

posted 17 Dec 2012, 06:26 by Mpelembe   [ updated 17 Dec 2012, 06:28 ]

A neuroscientist in Malaysia believes he can enrich the lives of primates both in captivity and in the wild by studying the second-by-second eye movements of an orangutan at Malaysia's National Zoo outsideKuala Lumpur. By understanding how apes' visual brain informs their feeding, locomotion and recreational behaviours, Dr Neil Mennie says zoos can improve their environments.

AMPANG, SELANGOR STATE, MALAYSIA (DECEMBER 8, 2012) (REUTERS) -Seven year old 'Tsunami' is a Sumatran orangutan, born at Malaysia's National Zoo the day after the 2004 tsunami that devastated southeast Asia. She has lived her entire life at the zoo on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur for the enjoyment and education of zoo visitors, but now she is part of an experiment aimed at improving the lives of orangutans both in zoos and in the wild.

Neuroscientist Dr Neil Mennie wants to know how the ape's visual brain works and how visual stimulation promotes everyday activity. By following her second-by-second eye movements, Mennie reasons that it should be possible to determine what interests her most and how to adapt her environment accordingly.

Orangutans are a critically endangered species - they are also among the most intelligent primates. The Sumatran orangutan is on the IUCN Critically Endangered list. Zoo officials are hoping Dr Mennie's research will help them develop their enrichment programme to get captive animals behaving as they would in the wild.

With the help of specially adapted eye tracking equipment he and his colleagues are hoping to explain some of the mysteries of visual cognition and how the orangutan interacts with its surroundings to forage for food.

Tsunami was introduced to the idea of wearing the eye tracking equipment over time. It consists of a backpack containing a wireless transmitter which sends s data from two video cameras mounted on her head-band. As Tsunami performs various natural tasks - foraging for food, using tools, moving around - one camera films what she sees and the other camera films the movements of her right eye.

Mennie, of the University of Nottingham's Malaysia campus says he hopes to gather substantial data and eventually to explain how humans and apes' vision collaborate when they perform natural tasks.

"Basically I'm very interested in how we use vision and action in real tasks, this applies to humans as well as apes. And what I'm trying to do here is to see how the orangutans use their vision in conjunction with their everyday actions. And I'm finding them very interesting because they are very good at aerial work, high up in the canopy. And I think this is going to give me a lot of important data on their spatial memory for example, their visual attention and how they just basically coordinate actions, you know, with four different limbs," Mennie told Reuters in Malaysia's National Zoo, where 'Tsunami' was born.

And the fact that orangutans use their hands and feet for locomotion and to pick up tools and food, adds to the mystery of how they use their eyes as part of the process.

Over the past 18 months, Mennie has performed a series of experiments with Tsunami. She has been challenged to follow points of infrared light with her fingers and search for food in an enclosure using an iPad, while Mennie assesses her ability to use her brain to make predictions about her surroundings, via her eyes movements.

Mennie's study not only could explain some mysteries in the endangered primates' cognitive and sensory systems, but could also provide some knowledge on how Orangutan's foraging strategy changes as they navigate in the wild.

This information will be useful for conservation purpose, says Mennie.

"What I'm hoping to do here is to shed light on for example, their foraging strategies as they learn locations and the value of different rewards such as food. This information might in turn one day be indirectly helpful to my colleagues working conservation when they for example designing forest corridors," said Mennie.

Mennie's study is being carried out with help from Malaysia's National Zoo, and in collaboration with the zoo's enrichment program for Great Apes.

The National Zoo Deputy Director, Muhammad Danial Felix, says he hopes the studies will help them gain better understanding on what captive animals need the most, and further on, to improve the design of their exhibits.

"There's a very strong movement on the welfare, taking care of the welfare and ethics of animals in captivity. So by having this experiment, its result will help. Meaning we will be able to identify what actually stimulate that animal in captivity, so we can use that result to improve for example our exhibit design, how we take care of animals, what to put inside the exhibit," he said.

After a week of data collection, Mennie sits down in his office to browse frame-by-frame the visuals recorded by Tsunami' s head camera.

With the help of researchers, he records the duration of each eye movement to answer questions like "How long does it take for her to identify an object?" and "How long does her stare last?"

Mennie hopes the data will allow him to identify some critical issues such as what actions or stimulii prompt the most concentrated eye focus or longest-duration stare.

He says his experiments have only just begun and that they could continue for another decade. It's time consuming work, as orangutans, like people, make three eye movements per second.

The Sumatran Orangutan is a highly endangered species. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) says there are only 7,000 in the wild, with illegal poaching and destruction of their natural habitat chief among threats to their survival.