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Thompson Investigates Primate Cognition in France
Roger Thompson, the Dr. E. Paul and Frances H. Reiff Professor of Biological Sciences
Baboons at the primate research center near Rousset, France. In the background are test stations that the baboons enter and leave at their own will, often producing hundreds of trials in a single day.
Tucked away in a forest in the south of France, Roger Thompson gazed outside his large office window with fascination. Not far away was a group of 27 baboons, a community of primates living in a distinctive research environment designed by his friend and colleague, Joel Fagot. Thompson watched closely as the baboons interacted with each other in the outdoor arena.
“It was easy to spend a lot of time simply watching the fascinating complex social behaviors of the baboons, in a natural setting,” says Thompson, the Dr. E. Paul and Frances H. Reiff Professor of Biological Sciences. “Joel has developed a remarkable setup that is unique in the world.”
Thompson traveled to France last fall to study abstract concept formation in baboons, a research interest of both his and Fagot’s. The primate research center, located approximately 30 miles northeast of Marseille near Rousset, is home to a project in which baboons of all ages voluntarily initiate experimental sessions on computer touch screens. The primates solve problems, entering and leaving the test stations—which are adjacent to their outdoor living facility—as they please.
The experimental setup attempts to improve upon traditional methods of testing primate cognition, in which animals are separated from their living quarters for their daily testing. Fagot’s design allows the primates to remain in their social group and does not require the presence of a researcher. The system enables round-the-clock data collection, with some baboons producing hundreds of trials in a single day.
“It is quite amazing to see,” says Thompson. “The computer remembers where in the animal’s designated test program it was when it last exited any test cubicle, and presents the next appropriate sequence of trials on the touch screen for that animal. It records the data cumulatively, and then similarly runs other animals that may enter that particular test chamber.”
Thompson is interested in how the baboons perform relational matching (a foundation for analogical reasoning), which he has explored in depth with a former student, Tim Fleming ’03. Of the 27 primates, seven or eight learned to transfer their relational knowledge to a new conceptually abstract task. “What’s incredible is that it took an average of 17,000 trials to reach the criterion where they could transfer,” Thompson says. “Why does it take 17,000 trials before a light bulb goes off?”
Away from the computer touch screens, Thompson observed the richness of the baboons’ social lives. Baboon mothers, he says, exhibited “tough love,” seemingly unbothered when their babies cried. He also witnessed the hierarchy of the community, with the top male asserting his leadership of the group.
“Joel is getting support from the local village, and schools bring kids in for show and tell,” Thompson says. “This shows that you can do comparative research in very humane ways.”