21st October 2010
On Thursday 14th October all of the Year 12 Psychology students embarked on an afternoon visit to Durrell.
Every year Psychology takes a large group of students to Durrell. This trip is a good way to start off the AS Psychology course, as it gives students the opportunity to mix with their new Psychology peers and a chance to see animal behaviour from a new perspective. The staff at Durrell always put on an interesting lecture on Classification and then the students are given the opportunity to explore the grounds and conduct research. The aim of the afternoon was to conduct observations on some of The Great Apes. The Great Apes comprise the primate family known as the Hominidae, which includes gorillas, orang-utans, chimps and humans. Of the Great Apes, humans are more closely related to gorillas than to orang-utans. We share 98% of our genes with gorillas and a mere 97.6% with orang-utans! The students were therefore interested in observing the behaviours of the orang-utans and gorillas in order to better understand their behaviour.
The first hurdle the students had to overcome was how to distinguish each individual gorilla and orang-utan apart. The hair of a western lowland gorilla is predominantly dark, mainly charcoal coloured, shot through in places with lighter flecks of grey. Added to this there are subtle shades of reddish brown, visible on the upper arms, shoulders and back, while a more vivid splash adorns the top of the head and merges into the crest. There is less hair on the chest, hands and feet, and the face, palms and soles are bare. When a male reaches 10-12 years of age, he starts to develop the characteristic silver back of a dominant group leader; silver-grey hair of clipped appearance covers his broad saddle, lower back and muscular rump and may extend down the thigh area in some males. So although distinguishing the male from the females was easy, females from other females was very tricky. In a stable group like that observable at Durrell, there may be ‘disagreements’ between its members, but these are usually settled without incident, often by the intervention of the silverback. Similar difficulties were experienced by those students observing the Sumatran orang-utans. This time, although the obvious size between many of the individuals was an advantage, the speed at which they would move caused a problem. The orang-utan really is ‘King of the Swingers’; it is known as the world’s largest tree-dwelling animal and is superbly adapted for the high life. The students thoroughly enjoyed watching their aerobic moves.
As for most mammals, the students were able to observe first hand that grooming and play are very important social activities. As well as the obvious hygiene benefits, these interactions help to strengthen the bonds within the group. Within individual research groups the students were able to collate a vast amount of data relating to a range of research aims. This experience of conducting an observation is invaluable for sharpening the students understanding of how observations are conducted. It was a really fascinating afternoon where everyone in the Psychology department was able to enjoy the wonderful surroundings of Durrell, the October sunshine and improve observational skills.