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Meet the Pittsburgh Zoo’s Tiniest Primates

by Maggie McLeod

Photo courtesy of the Pittsburgh Zoo.

The Pittsburgh Zoo’s latest research may just evolve into a real life “Planet of the Apes.” Or, it will provide crucial information on the intelligence of some of their tiniest primates. 

These little apes, also known as arboreal black-furred siamang gibbons, have been studied and researched over the past seven years to test their cognitive abilities. Gina Munir, a primatologist and visiting researcher at the Pittsburgh Zoo, has been studying small ape cognition in the siamang gibbons while caring for them and juggling her many other responsibilities. 

“Basically, I have a computer touch-screen monitor that I will wheel up to their enclosure, and I have different cognitive tasks that are on there,” Munir said. ”I have them complete those, just like you would play on your iPad, I collect that data, and I compare it to other studies done by other apes and even small human children.” 

Munir’s inspiration to study siamangs began when she was just starting out as an intern at the Pittsburgh Zoo. Leelah, the first siamang she ever worked with, quickly won over her heart during one of their earliest interactions. 

“She was the reason I fell in love with these guys,” Munir said. “I gave her a puzzle box, and she intricately tried to solve it and got it open.”

Inspired by Leelah’s puzzle solving skills, Munir decided to delve deeper into understanding the extent of the siamangs’ intelligence. 

“I just remember watching her and I was like, ‘wow, look how intelligent she is,’” Munir said. “I went home and was Googling [siamangs] … and there was nothing on these guys. Why is there no cognitive research or anything?” 

That day, Munir had a light-bulb moment that changed the course of her career. 

“Right then, it just clicked that that’s what I’m going to do for the rest of my life,” Munir said. “I’ll prove that these guys are awesome and they’re smart.” 

The goal of her research is to educate the public on the siamang gibbons and the importance of protecting them and their natural habitat. 

“That’s the whole point of being a scientist and a researcher is that you try to get the truth out … get people to care about them,” she said.

Those interested in visiting the Siamangs can visit the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium between 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. seven days a week. 

Photo courtesy of Zooinstitutes.com.

To support research like Munir’s, visit Ginammunir.com/donate, where 100% of profits go to support research with gibbons and/or other organizations that support gibbon welfare, research, and conservation. 

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