Understanding Orangutans Through Eye Movement
November 28, 2012

Eye Tracking Technology Helps Researchers Better Understand Orangutans

Lee Rannals for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

A neuroscientist specializing in cognitive and sensory systems research is using eye tracking equipment on orangutans to better understand visual cognition of humans and apes, and also help provide a better life for captive bred animals.

Dr Neil Mennie, from The University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus (UNMC), is using the specially adapted equipment to study the eye movements of Tsunami, a seven year old orangutan at The National Zoo of Malaysia.

“Orangutans are particularly interesting because to survive in the treetops they must be very spatially aware of their surroundings," Mennie said. "I hope to investigate their ability to search for food and to compare their progress with humans in 3D search and foraging tasks."

He has spent the last year recording Tsunami's eye and body movements during the performance of complex actions, including foraging and manipulating small objects.

Tsunami was slowly introduced to wearing the equipment, which consists of a backpack containing a wireless transmitter. The backpack transmits data from two video cameras mounted on her headband. As Tsunami performs tasks, one camera films what she sees and the other camera films the movements of her right eye.

“I´m interested in the way we make predictive eye movements to places in the world where the stimulus is yet to appear and whether these predictive eye movements are there to assist the timing and placement of actions or whether they also help high-level mechanisms such as memory for our immediate space and the location of objects within it," Mennie said.

He said with this research, he hopes to shed light on how these animals navigate, helping other scientists who wish to learn orangutan habitat.

Orangutans are critically endangered, and the Sumatran orangutan is on the IUCN Critically Endangered list. Tsunami's zookeepers hope Mennie's research will help them to develop a program designed to get captive animals behaving as they would in the wild.

In the wild, orangutans use their vision and hands to guide themselves through the environment, finding both food and tools.

“We want to keep our animals occupied so they don´t display stereo typical behavior such as pacing. We also want them to be able to exhibit any natural behavior," said Faradilla Ain Roselan, Zoology Officer at Zoo Negara Enrichment Center. "Apes are highly intelligent animals and we don´t want them to get bored. If we predict what they want to do maybe we can think of an enrichment that would suit their intelligence.”

Tsunami is in a specially built enclosure right now, but eventually Mennie hopes to track her when she is allowed to join her fellow red apes.

“I could have done this research at any zoo," Mennie concluded. "But the orangutan is a flagship symbol of Malaysia and I think it is fitting that this research is done here in Malaysia at The University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus.”