Primate Research Puts Classroom Theories Into Real-World Practice

Primates Research Puts Classroom Theories Into Practice

Fairfield student and spider monkey

Biology undergraduate student Victoria Pellegatto ’23 reached toward a spider monkey during research at Connecticut's Beardsley Zoo.

A cross-departmental team of professors and students is researching the behavior of spider monkeys in collaboration with Connecticut’s Beardsley Zoo.

The College of Arts and Sciences' Matthew LaClair, PhD, visiting assistant professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, and Ashley Soyong Byun, PhD, assistant professor in the Biology Department, are leading a team of undergraduate student-researchers from their respective departments to test interspecies social learning in spider monkeys, using a “puzzle tube” which they designed.

This project is being undertaken in collaboration with Connecticut’s Beardsley Zoo. The goal is to test whether the spider monkeys are able to learn from human cues by solving a puzzle and retrieving a food reward. 

“Learning by watching others (social learning) may seem simple because all humans engage in social learning from a very young age,” said Dr. LaClair. “However, the data regarding interspecies social learning in primates is more mixed. Gaining a greater understanding of social learning in various species of monkeys can help to give us a better understanding of the evolutionary roots of social learning in humans.”

The researchers are also in the process of assessing the use of touch-screen devices as enrichment and cognitive tools in some of the zoo’s new world monkey species. “Our collaboration with Connecticut's Beardsley Zoo gives our students the privilege of working with primates in a research setting, which is unique,” Dr. LaClair noted.

The research group, which also earned funding from Fairfield’s Science Institute, is currently working with seven undergraduate students: six from the Biology Department: Sabrina Chionchio ’22, Victoria Pellegatto ’23, Madeline Bosse ’23, Peyton Ralph ’24, Anne Mackey ’24, and Rebecca Belmonte ’22, as well as a student from the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, Zana Imetovski ’24.

“Working with students in a research setting is extremely rewarding,” Dr. LaClair said, “as it allows you to extend and deepen the lessons taught in the classroom, and guide students in applying those principles in real-world settings.” 

Learn more about Undergraduate Student Research

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