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Living Links: primate study at Edinburgh Zoo

World-leading primate research has led to the creation of a research centre located in Edinburgh Zoo. The ‘Living Links to Human Evolution’ Research Centre has pioneered unique public engagement and science education, and research conducted at the centre has also contributed to the Scottish Highers curriculum.

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Research outputs on primatology and zoology from the University of St Andrews has resulted in the creation of a University research centre, known as ‘Living Links’, as well as a substantial legacy resource of museum displays, texts, and experiences supporting public and high-school engagement with science.

The University of St Andrews is recognised for world-leading research on primate behaviour and cognition. Within the School of Psychology and Neuroscience, the ‘Origins of Mind’ research group aims to understand how evolutionary history and the process of development influence behaviour and cognition in a broad range of animal species.

The ‘Origins of Mind’ group’s research has focused on scientific questions about the origins of major aspects of psychology, including culture, social learning, vocal and gestural communication. The reputation of the group continuously rose with the appointments of Andrew Whiten and Richard Byrne, and later others, such as Klaus Zuberbühler and Catherine Hobaiter.

For example, Whiten published ‘Cultures in chimpanzees’, an article collating decades of field research to reveal 39 different behavioural traditions and unique local ‘cultures’. Whiten also researched novel experiments demonstrating a range of social learning processes in human and non-human primates, as well as the capacity of chimpanzees to sustain multiple traditions in different groups.

Byrne's research revealed the complex, hierarchical processes used by wild apes when they use nutritious food sources that are hard to access, leading to the highly influential concept of program-level imitation (see Byrne’s ‘Learning by imitation: A hierarchical approach’). Program-level imitation is the process whereby animals – or people – learn a specific organisation of a process by observing it done. For example, the mountain gorillas that Byrne studied deal with leaves and stems protected by physical defences, such as spines or stings, by using a handling technique that is efficient but not at all obvious.

In addition, Zuberbühler's research discovered features of language present in primate vocal communication using sophisticated field vocal playback experiments to examine referential aspects of primate calls. This research showed that primates communicate about different food values and that different meanings arise from different combinations of calls.

Through this research, and building on an established reputation, Whiten and Zuberbühler led a successful £1.6m bid in 2004 for a Strategic Research Development Grant (SRDG) from the Scottish Funding Council to establish a University research centre in Edinburgh Zoo, a collaboration with its parent organisation, the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland.

The £1.6m was used to create an innovative research facility unique within the UK and comparable to leading primate behaviour research centres around the world (for example, the Max Planck Köhler Centre in Leipzig). The resulting `Living Links to Human Evolution' Research Centre, opened in the zoo in 2008, is owned by the University of St Andrews and contains mixed-species communities of approximately 70 monkeys.

The name ‘Living Links’ stems from the notion that humans are primates, so monkeys and apes are our closest animal relatives; they are ‘living links’ to the ancestors from which we all evolved. It is for this reason the centre’s full title is the ‘Living Links to Human Evolution’ Research Centre. Understanding the origins of the human mind is one of the main reasons the animals are studied at the centre.

Large inner and outer enclosures are coupled with bespoke testing areas that monkeys enter voluntarily and interact with experiments. This has proved excellent for testing the cognitive capacities of these monkeys. All research areas are in full view of the public galleries, fulfilling the key aim of Living Links to combine world-leading research with an unprecedented scale of public engagement.

The public are encouraged to view all research done in Living Links as it happens, and there are public lectures as well as numerous hands-on electronic and physical activities. For example, one interactive challenge in the past included the ‘panpipes’ foraging tasks that required visitors to use tools replicated from those used in original chimpanzee research to solve the task. Each task was accompanied by video showing chimps using their local cultural technique; visitors were invited to solve the task themselves to gain an artificial grape. They were then directed to a second panpipe device where they saw the alternative cultural approach. Through tasks similar to the panpipes challenge, visitors are led to understand more about scientific methods and scientific discoveries themselves. Visiting children also take part in ongoing child development studies paralleling those conducted on the non-human primates.


  • Effective public engagement. Many of the exhibits at Living Links showcase primate research through a hands-on approach for visitors at the centre. Visitors can interact with displays, public talks and discussions, as well as participate ‘over the shoulders of the scientists’ via ‘Living Links live’, where users learn about scientific zoological discoveries and the scientific methods used to obtain them.

  • Impact on practitioners in secondary school science education. Teaching materials focusing on primatology and animal behaviour were created for secondary school teachers of Scottish Highers in Biology. One of the packs on ‘Primate communication’ draws directly on Zuberbühler’s chimpanzee vocal playback experiments described above, guiding students to understand the underlying principles of the science and learn about primate cognition.

  • Impact on commercial income benefits. Approximately 60,000 more people visited the Zoo in the year that Living Links opened than in the previous year, equalling an increased gate intake of approximately £750,000 at the time of opening.


  • Wellcome Trust Public Engagement People Award 2010 (‘Living Links to Human Biology and Medicine')
  • Wellcome Trust Public Engagement People Award 2012 ( ‘Living Links to Human Biology and Medicine: Extensions & Outreach')

Thursday 7 June 2018

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