South Africa: Curious Monkeys Get in Touch With the Touchscreen

19 January 2023

A group of vervet monkeys in KwaZulu-Natal have become the first primates in the world to learn how to use a touchscreen.

The breakthrough will now allow scientists to test the intelligence of non-human primates without having to keep them in enclosures.

A research team led by Erica van de Waal, who leads the iNkawu Vervet Project at Mawana Game Reserve in KZN, found a way to teach the monkey's how to use touchscreen technology.

"Some of the things we did to make the system work included reducing the size of the screens and changing the size of the symbols as well as finding the best possible location that was safe enough from predators and finding a way to connect it to the internet," said the joint first author Tecla Mohr, Business Insider reported.

They did this by placing a 15kg box with a screen and a battery in a tree and setting up a hotspot for the touchscreen to function.

The monkeys were intrigued. After inspecting the contraption, they began touching a blue square, then moving it around the screen.

To sweeten the deal, corn was shot out of a chute as a reward when the monkeys followed an on-screen pattern.

"The learner must understand and associate their gesture with the resulting jackpot," said a statement from the ecology and evolution department at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, where Van de Waal is an assistant professor.

"This proof of concept eliminates the need for animals to be held in captivity, thus expanding the potential for application to other species in their natural habitat."

The breakthrough also might cause owners of domesticated monkeys to hand them an iPad with some games on it to keep them entertained.

Despite the breakthrough, another team of researchers from the same Mawana Game Reserve said monkeys using touchscreen technology in close proximity to humans could be dangerous.

"There is a risk of habituation to the touchscreen spilling over into increased attempts to interact with screens in other contexts," the team said in the Journal of Animal Ecology published last November.

Compiled by Dylan Bettencourt

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