Sunday 23 October 2016

Zoos can give chimpanzees a feel of the wild with new computer program

Published 11/05/2016 | 11:01

The design tool helps create new features for enclosures that are more like the animals' forest homes
The design tool helps create new features for enclosures that are more like the animals' forest homes

A new web-based program has been created to help zoo keepers encourage chimpanzees to behave more like they would in the wild.

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The design tool developed by University of Birmingham scientists helps create new features for enclosures that are more like the animals' forest homes to keep endangered chimpanzees physically and mentally active and interacting socially.

Lead investigator on the study, Dr Susannah Thorpe, said the program aimed to improve the welfare of the chimps in zoos and give visitors a better idea of how they behave in the wild.

Chimps are endangered and there may come a time when captive-bred apes could be released into the wild to prevent them going extinct, so c reating enclosures that stimulate natural behaviour could improve their chances of survival in the wild.

Making the enclosures more like the wild - which is complex and unpredictable due to threats from predators and forest growth and decay - als o aims to tackle problems for chimps of a more sedentary zoo life, such as obesity and depression.

Keepers observe the behaviour of each animal in their enclosure on a half-hourly basis and input the data into the program.

The tool automatically compares the information with data on wild chimp behaviour and gives guidance on new features zoos could introduce to stimulate natural behaviour.

The researchers worked with Twycross Zoo, Warwickshire, to develop the program, which saw the introduction of a network of interconnected straps and nets from the bottom to the top of the zoo's chimp enclosure.

The network contains the chimps' bedding material and has pockets hanging from it where their food is put.

As the number of chimps and their actions on the network changes, the movement of the straps and nets also shifts, making the environment less predictable and making them arm-hang from straps and duck, dive and bend in different ways as they would in the wild.

Dr Thorpe said: "The chimps' habitat in the wild is mechanically very challenging and different every day, so zoos need to be able to recreate a similar environment in captivity.

"We have designed this tool to give zoos the ability to compare the behaviour of their animals to the latest research on wild chimps, and to use that to create physically and cognitively stimulating enclosures that mimic, as closely as possible, the mechanics of forest habitats."

She added that it was not enough to simply preserve chimps' genetic material to prevent extinction, the apes also needed to have the behavioural traits and physical abilities to survive in their natural environment.

"Our project is about ensuring that future generations of chimps grow up in a complex and dynamic environment that is going to bring out these features to enhance their welfare, show the public how wild chimps really behave and improve their chance of survival in the wild, should it ever be required."

The enclosure design tool will be available to UK zoos through the British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums (Biaza) and the researchers hope it can be developed for other at-risk great apes including orang-utans and gorillas.

Press Association

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