Researchers Work to Improve Screen Time for ... Monkeys

Encounters with audio, visual stimuli to help build better 'interactive enrichment systems'
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Jun 19, 2022 2:45 PM CDT

Saki monkeys may prefer to listen to music more than the rain and appear more keen to watch underwater scenes than those featuring earthly worms, according to new research, which combined monkeys, screens, and speakers. Researchers at Scotland's University of Glasgow and Finland's Aalto University set up a "monkey media player" for three white-faced saki monkeys at Helsinki's Korkeasaari Zoo, per the Guardian. While similar computer-based, interactive systems offered to primates at other zoos are meant to "entertain and engage the animals with interactions to stimulate cognition in ways comparable to activities they might undertake in the wild," per a release, this system was the first to offer monkeys a choice of stimuli—"like a primate-focused Spotify or Netflix."

Moving through infrared beams in their enclosure triggered either audio stimuli—music, rain sounds, or traffic noise—or visual stimuli—underwater footage, scenes of worms, or abstract shapes and colors—which fluctuated every few days over the 18-day interaction period. The music and underwater footage were triggered most frequently in each category, but audio stimuli was triggered twice as often as visual. However, "the results weren't statistically significant enough for us to know for sure what they prefer," animal-computer interaction researcher Dr. Ilyena Hirskyj-Douglas tells the Guardian. Over time, "overall levels of interaction with both stimuli dropped, but their interactions with visual stimuli increased in comparison with the audio stimuli," per the release.

The stimuli would play for as long as the monkey stayed in the area. Most interactions lasted only a few seconds, "mirroring how they interact with more familiar elements in their enclosure," per the release. "Further study could help us determine whether the short interactions were simply part of their typical behavior, or reflective of their level of interest in the system," says Hirskyj-Douglas, adding the goal is to "build effective interactive enrichment systems" for these animals. As she notes in an accompanying video, "a lot of research has shown that giving animals choices inside their enclosure is very good for their welfare, their mental well-being." The study, which isn't yet peer-reviewed, is due to be published after a conference presentation. (Read more monkeys stories.)

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