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Gena Sbeglia,
NSF Graduate Fellow

NSF GK-12 Project: University of Missouri-St. Louis
Missouri Science Teaching and Education Partnership (MO-STEP)
URL: http://www.umsl.edu/%7Ebiology/icte/MO-STEP

Thesis Title: Social Learning of Problem Solving and Innovation in Captive Ring Tailed Lemurs
College/University: University of Missouri-St. Louis

Research Advisor: Zuleyma Tang Martinez

Degree Sought

University Department and/or Lab
Department of Biology, Behavioral Ecology

Research Focus
Problem solving and innovation in ring tailed lemurs

Description of Research
The ability to innovate individual behavior in novel situations may be an indicator of intelligence and offer a critical advantage in readily changing habitats. Species that are prone to innovation are often characterized by their cognitive and problem-solving abilities and by their socially complex group systems, which allow for socially facilitated learning. If those learned behaviors allow for high degrees of niche flexibility and can be spread and maintained in a group, we may expect that social and innovative species will be better able to adjust to human-altered landscapes. Although lemurs have been labeled as unintelligent and thus ignored in tests of cognition, recent observation and research suggest that some lemur species, most specifically, ring tailed lemurs, may even be capable of developing and maintaining innovative behavior patterns.

The objectives of my study are to: (1) investigate the problem solving ability of ring tailed lemurs when completing a multi-stepped task, in which they have to formulate a pattern to reach a food reward; (2) assess the innovative drive of the species in this multi-stepped task by testing if they can evaluate the efficiency of certain patterns by modifying less efficient (more steps) and maintaining more efficient (fewer steps) patterns; and (3) using differently sized groups, measure the effect of social learning on the successful completion of Objectives 1 and 2. I hypothesize that when given the opportunity for social learning, individuals will not only be quicker to solve the initial problem, but will also be able to innovate that solution through personal and observatory interactions with the apparatus on which the task will be based. This study holds the potential to evaluate if lemurs are cognitively capable of high degrees of behavioral flexibility which may allow them to better adjust to their rapidly changing environment.

Example of how my research is integrated into my GK-12 experience
Since I am currently in the planning stages of my master's research, I used this experience to guide students as they came up with ideas for their own independent projects. I taught a short lesson on how to turn an interest into a research project and used the experiences in my own research as an example. The purpose of the assignment was to give the students the opportunity to apply the scientific method by researching something that was important to them. My goal was to foster the studentsí ownership of their work and explain how the scientific processes can be relevant to their daily lives. In showing them how I came up with my research as a way to learn more about something I liked, it gave them the freedom to do the same. Students did research on an array of topics, including public opinions of songs as a function of their frequency on the radio, mammalian weight gain during pregnancy, prevalence of certain diseases in the black community, and food preference as a function of taste sensitivity in humans. One of the students is continuing her project into this semester as a paid MO-STEP intern.

Profile date: July 2007
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