Animals are pretty weird, and often possess behaviors that are surprising to some humans. For example, many primates have a dominant hand, just like humans and certain species of tree frogs have been known to communicate using symbols they form with their forefeet. Upon starting my internship, I was told that I would need to conduct an observational study on any behavior in relation to any animal at the zoo. At first, I really struggled to choose an animal, not really knowing too many interesting facts about the animals at the zoo. But, one day when I was walking through the primate building, I found myself staring at a family of small apes climbing and swinging effortlessly through their multilayered exhibit, the white handed gibbons.
At the zoo, we have a family of four, Mercury, the father, Pheonice, the mother and their two sons, Orien (age 4) and Aries (age 2). These animals are considered lesser apes due to their size, and are often overlooked when guests see the gorillas across the way, but they are incredible! These primates are native southeast Asia, from southern China to Indonesia and weigh about 7-12 pounds. White handed gibbons are the most acrobatic primate and full of energy, making them incredibly entertaining to conduct a behavioral study on. I chose them, knowing I wanted to study something in regard to their family structure and after a few hours of watching, decided to study who initiates play more frequently, Aries or Orien, hypothesizing that Aries would, being the younger sibling.
Throughout my time, I observed for an hour per day, keeping an ethogram marking who initiated play, and what type of play was being initiated. The types of play ranged from tag, play wrestling and biting and food stealing. Honestly, not every single moment was exciting, during the 95+ degree days, neither me or the gibbons wanted to think about moving, and I wound up collecting little to no data on those days.
Approaching the end of my internship, I started to count up my tallies and figure out who was truly initiating play more frequently. Contradicting my hypothesis, Orien initiated play more times overall. Within the different types of play, Orien was more likely to initiate tag, while Aries would initiate wrestling and biting, Aries also was the only gibbon to be guilty of food stealing.
These observations can be helpful in understanding the family structure of this family, and can help record behavioral changes when an animal becomes stressed. I’ve enjoyed my experience with these animals, and have gotten to know them quite well from their physical appearance to their behavioral quirks. I’ll definitely be back to visit sometime in the future, and maybe next time Orien and Aries will have another younger sibling to pick on!