San Diego Zoo Live Feed: Siamangs and Orangutans

For our final e-portfolio we drew from the knowledge we have of zoo’s as it pertains to an animals well being and either traveled to the Duke Lemur Center, the Greensboro Science Center or watched online live feeds of primates in enclosures found at different zoos. For my final post I chose to observe the Siamangs and Orangutans found at the San Diego Zoo.

I began by watching the Siamangs. Siamangs are both the largest and darkest primates of the Gibbon family and can be found in Malaysia and Indonesia. They also are light weight with long arms that they use to swing from branch to branch and tree to tree. Siamangs can  be found in single family units that consist of a male, female and their offspring. These pairs stay together throughout life while their offspring leave to start their own families. Typically Siamangs feed on fruit and leaves but occasionally consumer protein from bird eggs, spiders and insects.

In this enclosure was a male, Unkie, and his female counterpart, Eloise. Both Siamangs were born in 1981 and have been together since 1987. In that time Eloise has given birth to 7 offspring. While observing I noticed that they Siamangs were not swinging from trees, but sitting on the ground. Each individual could be seen picking through the scrubs and grass, and every now and then feeding on it. One siamang (who I believed to be the female) began to groom herself for a bit before traveling over to her mate to begin grooming him. The grooming lasted only for a couple minutes before both primates continued to pick at the grass. The individual who I believed to be the female moved from her mate to under a fallen log or tree to find shade as the male continued to pick at the scrubs.

Next I looked at the Orangutans, who shared their enclosure with the Siamangs. Orangutans can be found on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo in southeast Asia. They are the largest arboreal ape in Asia and spend most of their lives in trees. Their diet primarily consists of fruit but they also eat many leaves, flowers, bark, termites, ants and even bird eggs. Orangutan offspring typically stay with the mother for their first eight years, the longest of any great ape.

There are five orangutans in this enclosure; one male named Satu and four females: Indah, Janey, Karen and their newest member Aisha, Indah’s daughter. I only viewed two of the five individuals. A female (either Janey or Karen because there was no baby present) and the male, Satu were both lounging about in the shade. Both orangutans were feeding on branches of leaves, not the scrubs. The camera then closed in on the male who was slowly looking around him and feeding on leaves. At one point he stopped his feeding to look over his shoulder a couple times. A couple minutes later he began to fiddle with a piece of burlap before continuing to feed on the branch.

Although I could not see the exhibit in person, I would say it must have had an adequate amount of space to fit two Siamangs and five Orangutans. Both species of primates were in their species-typical groups engaging in species typical behavior, with the exception of one thing; swinging on trees. Neither the Siamangs, nor the Orangutans, both arboreal primates, could be seen swinging through trees, or anything for that matter. In my observations I found most of the enclosure to be open space with out trees. However, the enclosure did include many rope-like toys that the primates could climb and jump on along with rocks and logs for play and enrichment. Aside from not swinging on the ropes, both primates showed very species-typical behavior, such as grooming and foraging for food.

In watching the live feeds I also came across sections on the website that offer important information on conservation. It did not only offer a general overview, but gave specific conservation tips for each primate. For example, when watching the Siamangs some conservation tips included recycling aluminum, glass and paper; three products whose elements come from the soil of the rain forest and the trees of Indonesia. For this reason I would say offering the opportunity to view a live feed of the primates also builds awareness for conservation.

All photos and information found at:

Fossey Archives (Conservation)

In this weeks focus, we talked a lot about conservation and what we can do to prevent the death or harm that is being done to primates. Our goal was to learn ways of conservation and in doing so we looked at Fossey’s archives in special collections to give us some insight into ways we should and should not go about conservation or building conservation awareness.

Digit Stare Gorilla
A Photograph of Digit by Dian Fossey found at:

In the document I chose from the Fossey archives, it talked a lot about the death (killing) of a young silverback named Digit. In this document, which is actually a letter made out to ‘Rosamond’ dated to January 1st through the 15th in 1978, Fossey states that Digit was killed by a Hutu poacher who was going to sell the head and hands of Digit for $2,000 in hopes of selling these parts to tourists. Fossey was furious and even says that she wanted to take matters into her own hands. In one part of the document she talks about an instance in which poachers were found not too far from herself and the gorillas. She says she immediately grabbed for her gun and took after them. Fossey says that she wanted nothing more to avenge the death of Digit but went about doing so in an even better way.

After finding the attempts of the conservator and other officials to be pointless, Fossey took it upon herself to launch a “Digit Fund”. This fund served different purposes but its main concern was to continue Digit’s investigation of finding the man who murdered him. It would also serve to imprison all of the parties who were involved in the killing of the silverback gorilla. Aspects of the fund would also cover reward money to anyone who could track down Digit’s killer. In addition to creating the “Digit Fund”, Fossey continued to pay patrols to look out for poachers and stand guard of the gorillas, on top of doing their regular duties to ensure the safety of the others.

A gruesome image of a beheaded mountain gorilla found at:

I believe that the “Digit Fund” allows us to get a sense of the type of conservation Fossey found to be most effective. Not only does the fund work to keep the gorillas physically protected, but it also helped built awareness to the need for conservation, in this case through cinema. Fossey wanted to build a visual aid in effort to speak to the world about the importance of conservation, in relation to Digit’s story. I think today, film still serves as an effective way of building awareness to the need for conservation. For example, we can see the up roar that the film Blackfish brought about in the past year on Whale and sea life awareness, focusing on Tilikum, an Orca Whale held by Sea World.

Fossey’s documents teach us that conservation can be achieved by taking action to build awareness. Building awareness creates support on a mutually important topic. Had Fossey taken matters into her own hands and tracked down the poacher herself and let her anger get the best of her, not only would she find herself in great trouble, but the only thing she would have accomplished would be getting revenge, and potential threats to the mountain gorillas would only continue. Seeing the comparison of what could have happened had Fossey acted on anger and seeing what she actually did allows us to see which techniques work best in efforts to create conservation.

Document Used: Found in Box 14. DF Bio. M5596. 1978 January 1-15.

Polyspecific Associations

For this week’s focus we talked about polyspecific associations among different species of primates. Polyspecific associations happen when primates come into contact with one another. Usually these occurrences take place between two different species of primates. With these associations each species is provided with foraging benefits and predator protection, both things that these species of primates would not have if they traveled alone. Two species of primates that have created a polyspecific association are the Diana Monkey and the Red Colobus monkey.

Diana Monkeys are Old World monkeys found in West Africa. They can be found in the forest and feed at all levels of the canopy. Diana Monkeys are active during the day and feed on mainly fruits and insects. Groups of Diana monkeys usually consist of one male with multiple females and their infants. They are often preyed on by the Crown Hawk eagle, leopards and the common chimpanzee.

Diana Monkey found at:

The Red Colobus Monkey is also an Old World Monkey that is found in the West African forests. They are diurnal and travel in packs or groups consisting of 20 to 80 individuals, but break off into smaller groups when foraging for food. The Red Colobus Monkey feeds on leaves, flowers and unripe fruit. Like the Diana Monkeys, Red Colobus monkeys are also preyed on by leopards and eagles.

Red Colobus Monkey found at:

In the Tai National Park on the Ivory Coast, it has been documented that these species of monkey spend over 62 percent of their time together that has resulted in changes in behavior for both monkeys. The Red Colobus Monkey and the Diana Monkey have a low dietary overlap, so in these polyspecific associations Diana Monkeys alter their diets while the Red Colobus Monkey groups change their patterns by spreading out, like that of the Diana Monkey. Above all, it’s been noted that both monkeys benefit from one another when dealing with predators. Because both species share a common predator it makes it easier for them to look out for such predators. With more members of a group there are more monkeys on the lookout for possible threats which confuses the predator, resulting in less of a chance of either species being captured by a predator. The Red Colobus monkey and Diana monkey situate themselves in such a way that allows them to be on the watch for predators both on the ground and up above. Red Colobus monkeys will typically reside higher up in the canopy, watching for aerial predators while the Diana monkeys stay closer to the floor of the forest, watching for predators from below.

Among predators, the most common for the Red Colobus monkey is the Chimpanzee. Chimpanzees do most of their hunting during the rainy season. This is also around the time where polyspecific associations between the Red Colobus monkey and the Diana monkey are most common (usually initiated by the Red Colobus Monkey).

All in all, the polyspecific associations that are built between the Red Colobus monkey and the Diana monkey are primarily beneficial for protection from predators. Working together both species of monkey are able to avoid the threat of predators by banding together and using specific techniques to ensure their safety.

Strier, Karen B. Primate Behavioral Ecology. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2000. Print.

Assessing Cognition in Primates

This weeks readings focused primarily on Primate cognition and the methods used to assess it along with what we can learn from it. In Strier’s Primate Behavioral Ecology chapter ten, we learned that there are three main ways in which researchers assess cognition in primates.

The first way of assessing and collecting data on primate cognition is achieved through learning and imitation. Scientists have found that there are many advantages to imitation such as a young primate watching his mother distinguish between what foods are okay to eat and what foods aren’t. This behavior, of imitating the mother during feeding time allows the young primate to develop the skills necessary to do the same in later years. Strier lays out this example with potato washing found amongst the Japanese macaques. Although it is assumed that imitation is an easy way of learning, it actually requires a higher level of representational thought and  an understanding of cause and effect relationships.

Scientists can also assess primate cognition by looking at ecological intelligence. This ecological intelligence encompasses both spatial memory and tool use. Spatial memory deals with the primates ability to recognize the area in which they live. This includes things such as remembering where one’s food source is and possibly distinguishing areas where higher quality foods or foods with patchier distribution, such as fruits,  are found versus where they are not.  Tool use looks closely at how primates use and manipulate the objects found within their natural environment. An example of this would be Gorillas’ construction of nest out of neighboring twigs, branches and leaves. Within tool use Strier includes the use of tool-sets which are two or more types of tools used after one another to achieve a goal. She also mentions tool-composites which are two or more tools having different functions, but used after one another to achieve a common goal. Populations of primates typically differ in their tool use depending on where they live.

The third method used to assess primate cognition is social intelligence.  Social intelligence is closely linked to spatial memory because it requires the individual to remember things like “friendships” and alliances as Strier says along with tactical deception and social traditions.

Below is a link to a website that includes a video interview along with the transcript that helps us figure out 1. Who to look at as far as comparing primate cognition to ourselves and 2. Helps us see what we can learn from studying primate cognition. I think the assessment of primate cognition is important to the story of human evolution. This insight into the mental sphere of primates allows us to get a sense of what our mental state was thousands of years ago. This video focuses primarily on what Capuchin monkeys and the information they offer us about ourselves and what our cognition looked like from early existence. They also enable us to document the old phylogenetic similarities found amongst ourselves and primates.

The link for the video/interview on primate cognition can be found here:

Strier, Karen B. Primate Behavioral Ecology. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2000. Print.

Second Article Review

Diana Monkey found at:

For my second article review I set out to look deeper into primates and their ability to acquire language. Initially I was looking to find an article on primates learning language as in sign language, something very popular among gorillas. In my search I found an interesting article that looked at primate language in terms their own communication.

My article, “Clever Monkeys: Monkeys and Language” is based on the film Clever Monkeys that looks at primate language complexity, seeking to determine the connections found  between primate language and our own. The article states that some monkeys’ abilities to produce “language” are better than others. All primates travel in social groups and these social groups require communication. This communication is used to inform others of information whether that be of predators or food opportunities. In communicating monkeys will often use visual, auditory or olfactory senses to convey the message, but some monkeys have evolved to a more sophisticated way of communicating. For example, the Emperor Tamarin female curls her tongue at her mate when she wants to release her kids.

Among primates, auditory calls are the most powerful. Different vocalizations make up the alarm calls, food calls and identification calls that many primates use. Typically this form of communication relays basic messages to others, but some calls are more complex than others. The article talks primarily about Diana monkeys, who are said to be the cleverest of monkeys when it comes to language development. Diana Monkeys often times will combine calls to create “sentence-like messages”. For example, predator calls change depending on the predator; an eagle call is different than a jaguar call. They’ve also found instances in which Diana Monkeys will give calls to convey specific information, such as a “maybe” versus a “not urgent” call. As if it couldn’t get any cooler, Diana Monkeys can also understand and communicate with other species of monkey, including the Putty-nosed guenons. This communication with other species is equivalent to a human knowing other languages. Another big point in monkey communication that the article points out is monkeys’ ability to use deceit in their language. The article uses the term “displacement” to describe this phenomena. In doing so they use both special displacement, that is the reference of an object that isn’t there in space, and temporal displacement which references objects that aren’t there in time. This is something that only humans have been found to do.

I think this article makes a very interesting point as it pertains to primates and language. It not only deals with my topic but it offers another take on what we think of when you say “primates and language”. Although I have not seen the film Clever Monkeys I think the article does a great job at laying out an example of findings that prove the point being made. The article was easy to read and offered specific information on specific primates which is helpful if I needed to do further research on the topic. However, despite the specificity of the article I believe it is somewhat of a stretch to call primate communication “language”. The article fails to give a definition of language which makes my interpretation of this article different from that of another. I think it is safe to assume that from the information provided that yes, primates are evolving to a more complex type of communication, but would I go to the extent as to call it “language”, I don’t know. (I would need more information).

Overall, this article has exposed me to an area in primates and language that I’ve never thought about. It has actually made me think about paper topic and what aspects of primates and language I should focus on.

Article Found at:

Proposed Paper Topics

For our final paper I have decided to look more into the teaching of sign language to nonhuman primates; these nonhuman primates being female gorilla Koko and male gorilla Michael. For this paper I will do a literary review in which I will look to find literature reviews and articles that will give me more insight into the popular phenomenon that I’ve always heard about but never did much research on; Gorillas and the learning of sign language.

In my abstract I will summarize some of the main points I hope to hit on throughout the paper. Then I will lay out each of these points,  getting a better understanding of the circumstances in which such a project took place and the benefits from that project. Some of the things I hope to learn while researching this topic using Koko and Michael as my focal point, are tackling the idea of sign language as it is taught to a gorilla. For this I hope to learn more about the process researchers and trainers went through in order to prepare Koko for learning sign language. Then I want to know the hardships faced by both Koko and her trainer in doing so. I also want to understand how Koko was able to teach Michael, a male gorilla, how to understand and speak in sign language, and the various things that can be done with this language use. Finally I want to be able to draw from both of these points to make conclusions of what language means for primates as a whole and what it can teach us.

I already know some of the basic information as it pertains to the outcome of language experiments with Koko and Michael.  Koko is a female gorilla who, according to her trainer, can understand over one thousand signs based on the American Sign Language and two thousand words of spoken English. I also know that Koko had a pet kitten named All-ball. Not only was Koko a student in this experiment, but also a teacher. She was responsible for teaching Michael, the first “talking” male gorilla sign language. Michael, who has sadly passed away, was a student of Koko’s and could understand six hundred signs. Along with understanding sign language, Michael was also well known for his artistic ability to create abstract paintings!

In order to learn as much as I can on the topic I look to write about I will need to refer primarily to the Koko website, where I can learn everything about the Koko Project (which includes Michael). I also look to use the Stanford Alumni’s question page to learn about Koko’s follow up and what she has been trying to accomplish in the past years. I will also reference for videos of both gorillas displaying their knowledge of sign language and scholarly articles and support blogs  where I can get information on Koko’s progress, Michael’s death and where the Project Koko looks to go from here.

Zoo Impressions

On March 1st,  the class traveled to the North Carolina Zoo to make observations of the gorillas in captivity. In class we’ve read various ethnographies from both Dian Fossey in her book Gorillas in the Mist and Martha Robbins in Primate Ethnographies, “Gorillas across Space and Time” that gave great insight into the process of gorilla observation at a field site. In addition to reading Fossey and Robbins I also was able to draw from Rosalie Osborn’s account, a colleague of Dian Fossey who conducted similar research on the mountain gorilla. Collectively, each piece prepared me for the gorilla observations, placing emphasis on the social interactions found amongst the gorillas in order to learn more about them.

I was pretty pleased with the observations made at the zoo. It wasn’t too overwhelming to record data on each gorilla which was something I was very worried about going into the zoo. I thought that if I directed all of my attention to one gorilla, I would miss important behaviors of another, but the gorillas activities made observation fairly easy.  The three adult females did not do much during the three hours of observation. Most of their time was spent resting or preparing a nest for rest. the only social interactions among the adult females were between themselves and their offspring, which was a joy to watch and document. Seeing a lot of the behaviors mentioned in the ethnographies happening right in front of me made me feel like a real gorilla researcher and I could relate with the works on gorilla observation read prior to the trip. For instance I mentioned in my paper the relationship between the mother and offspring. In my paper I recorded the very acts talked about in Robbins and Fossey’s work such as the infant clinging to the mother and the wrestling done between the two babies. It’s one thing to be reading about these interactions but it is truly something else to be a witness of it yourself and for that very reason I would say the zoo trip was a success.

Although reading the ethnographies before going to the zoo prepared me for what I would be documenting, I was surprised to find such a lack of interaction between the adults in the enclosure. In the three hours of observation that took place I did not witness any social behavior between the mothers, Jamani and Olympia, with each other or with the third adult female, Acacia. From the hours of observing I inferred this lack of interaction could be due to the break in the gorillas social organization, due to the death of the Silverback. Both Osborn and Fossey document the importance of the silverback to the gorillas social structure. In reading about the importance of having a dominate male I also came to the conclusion that many of the roles the silverback would possess in a group of gorillas are roles that were not of importance to the gorillas in captivity. For example, the silverback provides its group with protection. Seeing that the gorillas at the zoo have no real predators to worry about such as poachers, this need for protection from the silverback is not much of a need at all.

Overall, I really enjoyed spending time with the gorillas. Aside from making structured observations to collect specific data I found myself still making observations and connections to the text read in class after all of my data was collected! In the short period of time spent documenting behavior I felt as though I learned a lot about each of the gorillas in the enclosure and even helped inform the small crowds of people of information when given the opportunity. The only things I wish were different during the observation lab would be having the silverback there to observe among the others and more movement and action over rest. In my data I found that the gorillas spent most of their time resting, something that was also brought up in the ethnographies read before this trip.

Gorilla observations in captivity, having read about the process of recording behavior at a field site, assures me that I didn’t miss much of the gorillas behavior. I say this because the enclosure allows me to be around the gorillas in a confined area, where most, if not all, of their behavior can be seen by the public. However, despite this advantage I believe the actions I’ve taken down would have been more authentic had they been done at a field site. The field site is the open natural environment of the gorillas and because of this the gorillas act in the most natural of ways allowing the researcher to get a greater idea of their daily life and structure.

Baby Bomassa at the NC Zoo


It's a barrel of Monkeys :)