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Monkeys Cheat, Too, Zoo Finds As It Opens High-Tech New Habitat

By Paul Biasco | April 2, 2015 5:32am | Updated on April 2, 2015 8:57am
 Katie Cronin, research scientist at the Lincoln Park Zoo.
Katie Cronin, research scientist at the Lincoln Park Zoo.
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DNAinfo/Paul Biasco

LINCOLN PARK — It's no secret that young boys and girls like to sneak a peek at their neighbor's spelling test. But do monkeys cheat, too?

Early signs point to yes, according to researchers using Lincoln Park Zoo's newest and most high-tech Japanese snow monkey exhibit.

The eight snow monkeys who have been roaming their new habitat haven't been given any instructions how to take their tests, which are on a computer screen.

Yet, they have managed to learn the basics of a touch-screen test by trial and error — and a bit of help from their neighbors.

The state-of-the-art habitat, which is being prepped for its grand opening Thursday, also features automated feeders hidden in Japanese lanterns, a network of controllable cameras and Chicago's answer to the nationally adored Panda Cam at the San Diego Zoo, the Snow Monkey Cam.

The snow monkey cam will be up and running soon on the exhibit's dedicated website, snowmonkeys.org.

The focal point of research at the exhibit will be the side-by-side glass cubes with touch screens.

The monkeys have had a few weeks to get used to the voluntary system and are slowly learning. The first monkey to climb into one of two glass-enclosed testing bays surprised staff by how she entered the research cube.

About 45 minutes after researchers opened the doors, curious 9-year-old female Mito made her way to the cube, lifted up the "doggie door" entrance and scooted under.

Researchers anticipated the monkeys would simply push the swinging door open.

Since then, five of the eight monkeys have tested out the research cube, and all five followed Mito's lead and scooted under the door.

"We know this species learns a lot from each other in the wild and this might be one example of how they sort of watch each other to figure out how to solve problems," said Katie Cronin, a research scientist at the Lester E. Fischer Center.

On Monday, scientists witnessed the most classic case of cheating — and were thrilled.

Ten-year-old Nara was inside one cube beside 10-year-old Miyagi when she leaned back, took a peek to her side and watched Miyagi complete a task on the touch-screen computer.

"We were thrilled," Cronin said.

If researchers want to put an end to the peeking, they can do so at the flick of a switch and activate the "smart glass" separating the cubes to turn it opaque.

"Most importantly, we are interested in how they understand each other, their social lives," said Steve Ross, director of the Lester E. Fischer Center.

The high-tech research cubes have been closed to the public during the initial opening of the exhibit, but will be open Thursday morning during a grand opening ceremony.

Each testing bay features a touch-screen computer that will use similar puzzles to those used in the Regenstein Center for African Apes such as sequencing, but for now the monkeys are just getting used to the system.

The first task is to simply tap a black dot on the screen.

No one showed the monkeys that's how the system works, and they are slowly learning that tapping that dot means a treat. For some of the monkeys, researchers have been making the dot smaller.

Consul-General of Japan Toshiyuki Iwado will join state Sen. John Cullerton, Rep. Sarah Feigenholtz, Lincoln Park Zoo Chairman of the Board John Ettelson and Vice President of Animal Care and Education Megan Ross at the opening ceremony at 11 a.m. Thursday.

The 7,300-square-foot exhibit partially opened in January and is the centerpiece of at $15 million improvement plan.

The habitat includes heated rocks, hot springs (which will be cool in the summer months) and a stream that will run the length of the exhibit.

Zoo staff expects the monkeys to breed over the next five to 15 years and increase the population from eight to potentially 20.

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