Travel Paths of Primates Show How Their Minds Work (Neuroscience)

How primates get from A to B gives vital information about their cognitive evolution, say researchers in a new study looking at the travel paths of animals in the wild. Using data from 164 wild primate populations, the global survey examines the mental abilities that primates, including ourselves, use to know where and when to travel in the most efficient way.

A birds eye view

Co-author Miguel de Guinea, expert in Evolutionary Anthropology at Oxford Brookes University commented: “Imagine looking down on a huge outdoor market from high in the sky, perhaps from a drone hovering quietly above. The people below move in different ways. Some wander haphazardly among the stalls: they are learning what’s available but are clearly not busy. Others take bee-line routes across the market to a destination they obviously wanted to reach, then, after buying what they need, head back in much the same way.

“If you could distinguish individuals, and watch them on many occasions, these patterns are likely to change, sometimes dependent on fruit and vegetables in season. We would also begin to learn about social aspects, as networks of repeated contacts show who is friendly with whom. We can get a good idea of people’s knowledge, their needs, their ability to think ahead and how they learn over time –  just from watching their travel paths. The same observations have been made by the research team using data from GPS devices and in-field studies of wild primates, giving us fascinating information about their development.”

Travel decision-making adds to picture

The original data was gathered from small GPS devices, used routinely in primate fieldwork: sometimes these are attached to the animals themselves, but in many studies a researcher follows the animals, usually noting a rich variety of background information on what they are doing and for how long.

The international team developed a conceptual framework to highlight ways in which these data can be analysed. Currently, primate cognition is studied by comparing measures such as brain size, or conducting experiments with artificial problems to primates in captivity. The evidence from travel decision-making amongst wild populations will enhance these approaches and give a fuller picture of the cognitive development of these species.

An urgent vision for primate research

Lead-author Karline Janmaat from the University of Amsterdam said: “Our ultimate dream is to set up a consortium to support data sharing and collaboration among primatologists. Hopefully this attracts MSc and PhD students from around the world to share and compare their collected data to these existing datasets.” 

The researchers say that further research is urgent, because so many species are now threatened with extinction in the wild.  Since 1970, two-thirds of all vertebrate populations have been lost, and large, day-living animals like primates have been significantly impacted. 

Miguel de Guinea stressed: “Time is fast running out – if we don’t act now we may never be able to understand the drivers of cognitive evolution. By applying our research methodology and findings we can make use of previously collected valuable data from wild populations and apply that to our understanding of the cognitive evolution of primate species.”

The research Using natural travel paths to infer and compare primate cognition in the wild is published in iScience.

Provided by Oxford Brookes University

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