A chimpanzee enclosure in Britain is trialling a new design tool that mimics the wild environment, encouraging the animals to move around using more natural behaviours. Matthew Stock reports.
With no threat from predators and a stable habitat, chimpanzees in captivity can be sedentary. Like humans, this can lead to obesity and other illnesses. British scientists have developed a computer program that encourages chimps to keep their wild side. SOUNDBITE (English) DR SUSANNAH THORPE, SENIOR LECTURER AT UNIVERSITY OF BIRMINGHAM, SAYING: "Zookeepers will collect data on their animals in terms of their locomotion, their social behaviour and their cognition, and upload it to the tool that we've created. And the tool will compare the behaviour of their chimpanzees to the behaviours exhibited by chimps in the wild." Such data helped design the chimps' enclosure here at Twycross Zoo in the English Midlands. Chimpanzees could become extinct in the wild in 20 years. Preserving their cognitive ability is now just as important, say scientists. SOUNDBITE (English) DR CHARLOTTE MACDONALD, DIRECTOR OF OF LIFE SCIENCES AT TWYCROSS ZOO, SAYING: "We're not just worried about conserving the animal's DNA anymore; we need to be conserving the whole repertoire for that species. So that includes its behaviour, how it moves, how it uses the area it lives in.... and actually keep all of those things so we're protecting the whole organism and not just the physical body of the animal." The Enclosure Design Tool aims to keep the chimpanzees physically and mentally active, and socially interactive. SOUNDBITE (English) DR JACKIE CHAPPELL, SENIOR LECTURER AT UNIVERSITY OF BIRMINGHAM, SAYING: "If you make it so they can move from one to the other of those resources by moving off the ground on arboreal routes then they'll automatically be spending more time off the ground and this will reflect more accurately the kind of travel behaviour that chimpanzees show in the wild." Arm-hanging from flexible straps, as well as bending and moving around different structures, helps the chimps develop a more natural musculo-skeletal system. The researchers hope this could soon help with reintroducing chimps from rehabilitation centres into the wild. They're now refining the tool's user interface, with ambitions to incorporate it into an app for smart phones and tablets.