Dec. 17 - A neuroscientist in Malaysia believes he can enrich the lives of primates both in captivity and in the wild by studying the second-by-second eye movements of an orangutan at Malaysia's National Zoo. By understanding how apes' visual brain informs their feeding, locomotion and recreational behaviours, Dr Neil Mennie says zoos can improve their environments. Rob Muir has more.
It's hard to tell how seven year old Tsunami feels about life behind bars at Malaysia's National Zoo, but scientists believe the answer may lie in her eyes. They're testing their theory with technology and painstaking analysis in a study lef by neuroscientist Dr Neil Mennie from the University of Nottingham. SOUNDBITE: NEIL MENNIE - UNIVERSITY OF NOTTINGHAM, SAYING: "What I'm trying to do here is to see how the orangutans use their vision in conjunction with their everyday actions." The purpose of the exercise is to bring about improvements in the lives of captive apes. Tsunami wears a backback which transmits data from two video cameras mounted on her head-band. As she goes about her daily life of foraging, eating, moving around - one camera films what she sees and the other camera films the movements of her right eye. By studying Tsunami's eye momevents, Dr Mennie believes he can quantify her degree of engagement with different activities and help zoo officials enhance her living conditions as a result. SOUNDBITE: NEIL MENNIE - UNIVERSITY OF NOTTINGHAM, SAYING I think this is going to give me a lot of important data on their spatial memory for example, their visual attention and how they just basically coordinate actions, you know, with four different limbs." Over the past 18 months, Mennie has performed a series of experiments with Tsunami. The zoo's deputy director Muhammad Danial Felix says say the reseach could lead to fundamental changes in zoo practices. SOUNDBITE: MUHAMMAD DANIAL FELIX - DEPUTY DIRECTOR OF MALAYSIA'S NATIONAL ZOO, SAYING: "There's a very strong movement on the welfare, taking care of the welfare and ethics of animals in captivity. So by having this experiment, its result will help. Meaning we will be able to identify what actually stimulate that animal in captivity, so we can use that result to improve for example our exhibit design, how we take care of animals, what to put inside the exhibit." But Mennie believes his work has application in the fieild as well. SOUNDBITE: NEIL MENNIE - UNIVERSITY OF NOTTINGHAM, SAYING "What I'm hoping to do here is to shed light on for example, their foraging strategies as they learn locations and the value of different rewards such as food. This information might in turn one day be indirectly helpful to my colleagues working conservation when they for example designing forest corridors." It's painstaking work. At the end of each week, Mennie and his colleagues go through the footage frame-by-frame to learn about life through the eyes of an orangutan