New feeder helps zoo gorillas ‘seek’ snacks

Besides being naturally clicky, gorillas are born foragers. In the wild, great apes move regularly in search of fruits, vegetables and bamboo shoots; a habit that can become difficult to recreate when living in a zoo. At Zoo Atlanta, for example, human workers generally provided the gorillas with their meals at certain times and in certain places. But a new, affordable device could provide a much more naturalistic diet for monkeys, once they get used to it.

(Related: Gorillas can be cliques, too. Here’s what that says about our own social life.)

Recently, a team of mechanical engineering students and Georgia Tech alumni began developing and testing ForageFeeder, a $400 machine partly inspired by deer feeders that can scatter gorilla meals at intervals and at random locations throughout the day. Suspended approximately 15 feet above the ground, ForageFeeder drops foods such as carrots, sweet potatoes and turnips from a bucket into a tray, after which a rotor pulls the snacks in a circular motion up to 30 machine feet.

Recreating the animals’ natural habitats and environments is crucial to ensuring the psychological and physical well-being of zoo residents, while encouraging exercise and mental stimulation. Just like modern humans, zoo animals often suffer from obesity due to a lack of activity. Tools and techniques such as the ForageFeeder not only promote the movement of Zoo Atlanta’s gorillas, but better simulate their natural foraging world.

Zoo Atlanta keepers have been using the ForageFeeder intermittently in their gorilla enclosure since last August. Although primates are now largely accustomed to its appearance, this has not always been the case. A video featuring the gorillas’ first encounter with ForageFeeder pretty much describes what one would expect, which is extremely confused monkeys. Over time, however, residents of Zoo Atlanta grew accustomed to the device.

“I’m confident we’re going to see statistical data that confirms what we’re already seeing: more foraging behavior,” said Josh Meyerchick, senior primate keeper at Zoo Atlanta and one of the co-authors. of the research document. month.

(Related: Zoo animals are getting COVID vaccines made just for them.)

That said, the team behind ForageFeeder isn’t waiting for gorillas to jump into the program. The machine plans are currently open source online and easily modified to suit the diets, feeding times and other peculiarities of countless other animal species. The makers of ForageFeeder have even modified their creation to serve the population of Angolan colobus monkeys at Zoo Atlanta.

“I find zoo projects very interesting because your target audience can’t provide feedback,” says Magie Zhang, a project collaborator and recent mechanical engineering graduate. “If the device stops working, the animal doesn’t tell you. If they tear it up, you can’t tell them to stop. It’s good to anticipate the problems of a design and find its solutions before sending it out into the real world. »

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