Ethology, the study of behaviour
Ethology concerns the study of animal behaviour. This concerns their motor activities, ranging from subtle behaviours like the blink of an eye to conspicuous behaviour like a mating. The behaviour of an animal constitutes its interaction with its environment. This can be subdivided in the ecological environment, involving predators and food, and the social environment, consisting of conspecifics and possibly other species. Behaviour results from an individual's genetic predisposition, determined by selection pressures on earlier generations, in combination with its ontogeny and actual situation. Typically, primate behaviour is flexible and adjusted to the current situation.
All diurnal primates live in long-term groups and are highly social animals. They exhibit a large variation in social behaviour, behaviour aimed at other individuals. Social behaviour concerns agonism: both aggression and submission, affiliation: friendly behaviour like grooming, and sexual behaviour. All these social behaviours are part of the normal primate behavioural repertoire. Primates recognize their group members as individuals, and also recognize animals from other social groups. They maintain differentiated social relationships with these individuals, from friendly to negligent to occasionally hostile.
Aim of the research
The fundamental research on animal behaviour concerns the evolution of social behaviour in primates, also in comparison with humans. In primates not only the ecological environment, with predators and food, is an important selection pressure on behaviour. Also the social environment formed by conspecifics forms a crucial selection pressure. Conspecifics are both potential competitors and potential cooperation partners. The importance of cooperation for the individual itself and its partner will depend on the circumstances. A good assessment of whose friendship should be maintained and who will be a competitor requires advanced social capacities. Currently, the complexity of this social setting is considered a crucial determinant in the evolution of primate intelligence. Social behaviour depends on an individual's characteristics, its position in the social group and its intelligence, in combination with the interests of its social partners. The research focuses on the regulation of agonistic, affiliative and sexual behaviour.
Social behaviour and animal welfare
Social behaviour is an important aspect of primate behaviour. Therefore, in primates the possibility to engage in social interactions is considered a crucial component of their welfare. This is expressed in the importance of good rearing and housing conditions: maturing and living in a social group results in "normal" social behaviour. Lack of social conditions are a major breach of primate welfare. Fundamental research on primate social behaviour has contributed to the design of the current social housing of primates at the BPRC and contributes to the improvement and monitoring of the husbandry practices.