Zoo Atlanta has a diverse population of primates, with multiple species from every major primate group (i.e. lemurs, monkeys and apes). We also have extensive collaborative projects with museums, zoos and field sites worldwide.
The current scope of primate studies includes exploring the breadth and depth of cognitive skills (e.g. memory, numerical cognition, self-control, mind-reading, cooperation, preference for fairness and cognitive bias) in many species; long-term observational studies on social dynamics in gorillas; and searching for physiological signals for development in orangutans, as well as research to determine factors that enhance physical and mental well-being.
We have also actively participated in collaborative projects on the morphology, behavior and cognition of a wide range of primate species, together with research groups, zoos, museums, conservation groups and field sites from the Americas, Europe, Africa, Asia and Oceania.
Zoo Atlanta is home to a number of highly endangered primate species, including western lowland gorillas, Sumatran and Bornean orangutans, golden lion tamarins, drill monkeys and lemurs. We currently have the largest populations of gorillas, orangutans and drills in the country.
Having such large populations adds considerably to our ability to conduct meaningful scientific studies. Additionally, we often collaborate with other zoological institutions, which greatly increases the number of animals included and thus the impact of our studies. For example, our work on the social behavior of zoological male gorillas represents the largest number of males ever studied in gorillas.
Scientists have long wondered about the true nature of great ape cognition, and a groundbreaking project at Zoo Atlanta provides researchers and guests with an ongoing opportunity to observe the skills of some of the animal kingdom’s most complex problem solvers.
Opened in 2007 through partnership with the Center for Behavioral Neuroscience (CBN) and IBM, the Orangutan Learning Tree encourages the apes to participate in regular interactions with an in-habitat computer, engaging in a variety of programs that allow scientists to collect data on their cognitive abilities. Our goal is to learn more about the orangutan social cognition—in other words, their understanding of their social environment. For example, what features do they use to recognize individuals (faces? voices? both?)? Do they recognize group vs. non-group members? We conduct this research in collaboration with Dr. Robert Hampton and the Laboratory for Comparative Primate Cognition at Emory University. Dr. Hampton’s lab conducts similar work with other species of primates, and we hope to eventually compare performance across species to look for common elements of primate cognition.
Currently, the orangutans are working on a categorization program where they are learning to categorize objects. You can try the same program the orangutans are doing here.
Although much of our work focuses on zoological populations, we are also involved with research on wild populations, specifically, work with the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International to study the social dynamics, reproductive strategies and life history decisions of male mountain gorillas.
Saving great apes one heart at a time
The Great Ape Heart Project (GAHP) is a group of dedicated and coordinated subject matter experts that provide a network of clinical, pathologic, and research strategies to aid in the understanding and treating of cardiac disease in all the ape species, with the ultimate goal of reducing mortality and improving the health and welfare of captive great apes.
For more information, visit greatapeheartproject.org
Great Ape Heart Project YouTube Playlist