Implementing portable touchscreen-setups to enhance cognitive research and enrich zoo-housed animals

  • Vanessa Schmitt Zoo Heidelberg
Keywords: Touchscreen technology; Comparative Cognition, Animal-Computer-Interaction; Welfare; Primates; Birds; Enrichment; Social Group


To understand the evolutionary development of cognition, comparing the cognitive capacities of different animal species is essential. However, getting access to various species with sufficient sample sizes can be very challenging. Zoos, housing large ranges of animal taxa, would offer ideal research environments, but zoo-based studies on cognition are still rare. The use of touchscreen-computers to explore the cognitive abilities of nonhuman animals has shown to be highly applicable, and simultaneously offers new enrichment possibilities for captive animals. To facilitate zoo-based research, I here illustrate the assembly and usage of newly developed touchscreen-computer-systems (Zoo-based Animal-Computer-Interaction System, ZACI), which can be used in various zoo environments and, importantly, with different taxa (e.g. primates, birds). The developed setups are portable, can be attached to various mesh sizes, and do not need any external power supply while being used. To evaluate the usability of the ZACI, they have been tested with experimentally naïve subjects of three great ape species (orang-utans, chimpanzees, gorillas) housed at Zoo Heidelberg, Germany, demonstrating to be animal-proof, easy to handle, and of great interest to the animals. Animals could be tested within their social group, as each subject had access to its own device during testing. To support the implementation of touchscreen-setups at other facilities, I also illustrate the training procedure and present first data on the apes’ performance in a simple object discrimination task. Portable touchscreen-setups offer the great possibility to enhance collaboration between zoos and researchers, allow a standardisation of methods, and improve data collection.