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Zoo hoping primate picassos can charm crowds
Orangutan Video Gam 6274856
Tara Stoinski of Zoo Atlanta shows how color patterns are made on the touch screen monitor built into a tree-like structure in the habitat of orangutans at the Zoo as part of a research program Tuesday, April 10, 2007 in Atlanta. The program uses computer games to study the cognitive skills of the primates. - photo by Associated Press
ATLANTA — At 4, Bernas isn’t the computer wizard his mom is, but he’s learning. Just the other day he used his lips and feet to play a game on the touch-screen monitor as his mom, Madu, swung from vines and climbed trees.
    The two Sumatran orangutans are part of new Zoo Atlanta research that uses computer games to study the cognitive skills of the orange and brown primates.
    The best part? Zoo visitors get to watch their every computer move.
    The orangutans play the games on a touch screen built into a tree-like structure in the habitat to blend in with their environment. Visitors watch from a monitor in front of the orangutan exhibit.
    Zoo officials hope opening up the interactive research to the public will raise awareness of the world’s rapidly diminishing orangutan population, which is on track to disappear completely in the next decade.
    ‘‘The more we understand about orangutan’s cognitive processes, the more we’ll understand about what they need to survive in the wild,’’ said Tara Stoinski, manager of conservation partnerships for the zoo. ‘‘It enables us to show the public how smart they are.’’
    In one game, orangutans choose identical photographs or match orangutan sounds with photos of the animals. Correct answers mean food pellets.
    There’s also a painting game where they can draw pictures by moving their hands and other body parts around the screen. Printouts of their masterpieces are on display in the zoo.
    The computer games test the animals’ memory, reasoning and learning, spitting out sheets of data for researchers at the zoo and Atlanta’s Center for Behavioral Neuroscience, a partner in the project.
    Volunteers from IBM worked nearly 500 hours developing the games, tweaking until the activities were challenging enough for the orangutans.
    The data will help researchers learn about orangutan’s socializing patterns, such as whether they mimic others or learn behavior from scratch through trial and error, said Elliott Albers with the Center for Behavioral Neuroscience, a consortium of researchers at seven Atlanta-area universities.
    In the end, researchers hope the data can point to new conservation strategies so that the 37,000 orangutans living in the wild on the Indonesian islands of Borneo and Sumatra don’t continue to die off.
    ‘‘Hopefully we can get the animals to find better sources of food more easily,’’ Albers said.
    Just two other U.S. zoos — the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., and Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago — are conducting such orangutan research, but only the National Zoo and Zoo Atlanta are allowing visitors to watch as the animals play on the computers, Stoinski said.
    On Tuesday, the crowd outside the exhibit chattered with excitement as Bernas, who zoo keepers call ‘‘Junior,’’ poked away at the computer screen, drawing a red, blue and yellow picture.
    ‘‘That’s so cool,’’ said Jeri McCarthy to her three daughters, Mackenzie, 13, Megan, 11, and Mariah, 10. ‘‘He can’t get enough!’’
    The family was in town from Cincinnati for the girls’ spring break from school.
    ‘‘I was very surprised,’’ said Megan on her way to next see Zoo Atlanta’s baby panda cub, Mei Lan. ‘‘It was interesting.’’
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