Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Meet the Scientist: Follow my ruffed lemur color vision study on #DukeLemurCenter Instagram. #SummerPrimate

I have been very fortunate to be granted access to post and talk about my research with the ruffed lemurs on Duke Lemur Center's Instagram page as part of their Meet the Scientist program. I will be posting pictures about my color vision research this whole week so head on to Duke Lemur Center's Instagram page to like, comment, and share my pictures. Have any questions about my research? Ask me on Instagram through Duke Lemur Center's page!

Please follow Duke Lemur Center on Facebook and Twitter as well. Keep the conversation going by following me on Twitter (@PrancingPapio). Let's talk lemur!

How do you tell a lemur to touch the red square? Similar to how you would train a dog, lemurs can be positively reinforced to exhibit the behavior you want by giving them a food reward when they did the correct behavior. Here I'm training AJ, one of the black-and-white ruffed lemurs (Varecia variegata), to touch the red square. We do something call chaining, where I chain a sequence of behaviors until the desired behavior is exhibited. Along the way, I give him dried cranberries as a food reward for a job well done! Are you wondering why I am training them to touch a red square? Stay tuned for more posts! Photo by @prancingpapio #dukelemurcenter #lemurs #lemur #lemuria #lemurian #animaltraining #positivereinforcement #primate #primateofinstagram #primates #ruffedlemur #blackandwhiteruffedlemur #varecia #variegata #colsci #color #colorvision #colorscience #psychophysics #psychophysiology #psychology #anthropology #primatology #SMARTA #prancingpapio
A photo posted by Duke Lemur Center (@dukelemurcenter) on

A photo posted by Duke Lemur Center (@dukelemurcenter) on

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Love Wins: SCOTUS Marriage decision; My husband came to visit!

My husband came to visit for the weekend and I got to show him Duke Lemur Center, as well as the ruffed lemurs I have been working with over the past month. I am excited he got to see how SMARTA worked and how the lemurs respond to the tasks I gave them. After all, he wrote and built the apparatus.

It was opportune that he was with me on Friday (June 26, 2015 for posterity!) when SCOTUS finally declared same sex marriage is legal in all 50 states. We have been together for 13 years and we've been married for 3 years. This is great news for us, but also overwhelmingly exciting news for those that can finally get married in states where same sex marriage was previously not legal.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

This Is Not The Sausage Fest I'm Hoping For ...

Much disappoint
I am approaching week 6 with my lemur training. So far, I have worked with 14 individuals; 8 black-and-white ruffed lemurs and 6 red ruffed lemurs. There are still a few more individuals that I haven't been able to work with but I should have access to them soon.

Of the 14 individuals, 4 of them were excluded from training because they are currently in outdoor enclosures. The glare from sunlight made it hard for both the lemurs and I to look at the screen (picture yourself trying to use a tablet or your phone on a bright summer day). This makes it hard for me to train them to touch the screen. 2 of the red ruffed were hard to work with because they are not really paying attention to training, although, it seems like their performance spike when I train them only once a week instead of daily. Unfortunately, these 2 had just been placed in an outdoor enclosure. I did, however, found a shady spot where I could potentially train them without being hindered by the glare. There's also 2 red ruffed that exhibited some behavioral problems that I had to exclude from the study as well. This brings me to only 6 individuals, and they are all black-and-white ruffed lemurs. Out of the 6 individuals, 2 are females and 4 are males.

If you remember what my study is, you'll know that I really need to work with more females. With the current sample size, I really hope at least one of the female is a trichromat. This is not the sausage fest I'm hoping for ...

Friday, June 19, 2015

SMARTA: Subject-Mediated Automatic Remote Testing Apparatus For Color Vision Discrimination Tasks [Poster PDF] #ASP15OR

SMARTA: Subject-Mediated Automatic Remote Testing Apparatus For Color Vision Discrimination Tasks
Raymond Vagell1, Vance J. Vagell2 and Andrea L. Baden3,4

1Animal Behavior & Conservation Program, Dept. of Psychology, Hunter College of City University of New York, New York , NY, 10065, USA.

2Queens, New York.
3Dept. Anthropology, Hunter College of City University of New York, New York, NY 10065.
4New York Consortium in Evolutionary Primatology, The Graduate Center of City University of New York, New York, NY 10065.

Primate behavioral studies often rely on human observation for data collection. This is especially true in captive and laboratory settings. However, human error and imperfect inter-rater reliability can contribute to erroneous data collection and entry. Furthermore, the physical presence of a researcher can influence research outcomes. The subject-mediated automatic remote testing apparatus (SMARTA) was developed in an effort to avoid human error, inter-rater disagreement, the observer effect, to control for visual stimuli, and to automatically log all observational data to the cloud. SMARTA is an innovative novel apparatus that integrates motorized food delivery (food reinforcement), remote control, and cloud-based data logging. SMARTA is a color-calibrated tablet-based testing platform, controlled remotely via smartphone app, which automatically dispenses food rewards and logs data online. With SMARTA, a researcher can remotely control an experiment without influencing subjects under test using Android apps for smartphone and tablet that interconnect using Bluetooth. Further, it automatically records data and uploads it to a Google spreadsheet for later analysis. Recent color vision studies have used naturalistic settings to assess and determine whether primates are either dichromats or trichromats. SMARTA can be used for touch screen discrimination tasks, especially color vision studies where hues and brightness are carefully controlled. Since it utilizes a consumer Android tablet and smartphone rather than specialized hardware, SMARTA can be built inexpensively.

You can download a copy of my poster from Academia.edu or Researchgate.net.

ASP 2015: Bend, Oregon

Whoever came up with the ribbon idea. You are the ASP 2015 MVP
I'm having a lot of fun in Bend, Oregon for ASP 2015. I will be presenting my poster tonight and will have a PDF of the poster up online later. My poster is about SMARTA, the apparatus I use to study color vision in ruffed lemurs (Varecia sp.).

Yup. That's me over there
I am also very excited to be the proud owner of a red ruffed lemur painting by Van Hoang Dao, a Vietnamese artist who paints in such exquisite detail. I hope he has a black-and-white ruffed lemur next time!

Red ruffed lemur painting by Van Hoang Dao

Monday, June 15, 2015

But Of Course: My Tablet Broke The Day Before I Fly To ASP!

I noticed a hairline crack on my tablet yesterday but thought nothing of the crack. As the day progresses, I noticed that the crack starts getting larger and larger, and towards the end of my research day today, it already took over one third of the screen and the tablet is not responding to touch anymore. Obviously this is no good because if a touch screen is not responding to touch then what good is it? By the time I got back to my hotel, my whole tablet screen had cracked!


After scouring the whole Research Triangle Park (RTP) area to replace a tablet, I  finally found one at a Verizon store. It was their very last tablet of that model. Of course it is more than $100 more expensive than the one I bought from Best Buy (or online) but I'm running short on time and I really needed it ASAP.

This isn't the first time my apparatus parts malfunctioned, but this one is more pressing and there isn't anything I can do to fix it except to replace it. However, I feel validated with the decision to use only Android products because SMARTA (my apparatus) is meant to be built relatively cheap. The Android tablet I'm using costs about $200 to $300ish whereas an iPad would cost about $600 (the total of how much you would pay to build SMARTA).

As if I'm not having a shitty Monday yet, the AC in my hotel room crapped out and I had to move to a different room. There were only 2 rooms available in the whole hotel and they are both "smoking room". Normally I'd bitch about having to sleep in a "smoking room" but I think being able to be in room with AC when the temperature outside is at around 90 degrees trumps all.

Someone or something is really testing me today ...

I got this fortune inside a fortune cookie from dinner today. I think it's apropos.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

ASP 2015: Bend, Oregon #ASP15OR

This year, American Society of Primatologists (ASP) annual academic conference will be held in Bend, Oregon from June 17th to 20th. I will be presenting a poster on the apparatus (SMARTA) I use to train my ruffed lemurs at the Duke Lemur Center.

ASP 2015 Poster Abstract

My poster session will be on Friday, June 19th from 6 PM to 8 PM. As per tradition, I will have the link for a PDF version of my poster on that day so keep your eyes peeled if you are interested in my poster presentation and can't be at the conference.

See you all at ASP!

Friday, June 12, 2015

Extinction Burst: Throwing Tantrums When There Are No More Free Handouts

Extinction and extinction burst graph from study.com
In psychology, an "extinction" is the gradual decrease of a behavior. When an animal is operantly conditioned (for example, given a food reward to reinforce behavior), reinforced behavior will gradually decrease when that behavior is no longer reinforced with a reward. At the onset of "extinction", an animal will exhibit something call "extinction burst". An extinction burst is when an animal frantically and erratically exhibit reinforced behavior with increased frequency and eventually that behavior decreases and becomes "extinct". I assume it's called "extinction burst" due to a burst of reinforced behavior prior to extinction. Extinction burst is evolutionarily beneficial as animals that exhibit extinction burst is increasing the reinforced behavior for a positive outcome as opposed to those that gives up (extinction without extinction burst). These are important concepts to remember when you train animals. But obviously, these are text book definitions.

Textbook definitions be like ...
I'm writing about this because I am currently experiencing extinction burst with my lemurs. It has been about 4 weeks since I have started training them. Aside from my one star student (Good job, Halley!) all my other lemurs are either starting to associate touching the screen or approaching the apparatus for a food reward. Those that are reinforced to touch the screen for a food reward are currently being shaped (refining their behavior) to touch the red square on the screen for a food reward. However, this requires the lemur to understand that by merely touching the screen will no longer be reinforced and that only touching the red square will a food reward be given.

This new development in cognitive test has given these lemurs much anguish and despair. If you know ruffed lemurs, you know how dramatic they can become. Have you seen those sad face? When their arms and legs are outstretched as if they are saying "FML......". Yea, I've seen it.

Imagine this is a ruffed lemur instead of a sloth
Some of these lemurs are currently exhibiting extinction burst. They are swiping or tapping frantically at the screen while staring at the apparatus chute expecting a food reward. We know that, based on this series of behavior, these lemurs are operantly conditioned by food reward to touch the screen. Shaping them to target the red box instead of any surface of the screen is resulting in some lemurs exhibiting extinction burst. They look like they are throwing tantrums because there are no more free handouts. Compared to previous weeks where they get a food reward for just staring at the apparatus or approaching it.

A black-and-white ruffed lemur. He's just over it.
And to be quite honest, only half of these lemurs are exhibiting extinction burst while the other half are slowly getting shaped to target the red box. Although it is interesting to note that all the lemurs that I am currently training are black-and-white ruffed lemurs. What I would do for these red ruffed lemurs to be exhibiting extinction burst but instead they are herp derping their way into realizing that approaching my apparatus gives them a food reward.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Check Out These Cute Drawings by Duke School 5th Graders at The Duke Lemur Center

These drawings are adorable. I was unable to track down why these are at Duke Lemur Center although I really should have just asked the staff (NOTE: will update this when I have info).

But aren't they adorable? I love seeing them every day when I am at the lemur center.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Le Lemuriens Sont "Comme Ci, Comme Ça"

I ended up not blogging for the past few days because there aren't a lot to talk about except the same monotonous routine with training these lemurs. It is by all means not boring, just same old, same old. I also don't want to jinx something so keep your eyes peeled.

My sample size is dwindling as I soon realize that there is a learning curve amongst species and unfortunately I only have 2 star students. However, I am not giving up on them in the entirety, but I'd like to move my star students into testing phase as soon as possible because who cares about failing students. Amirite? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

There's a parallel to be drawn about my apparatus and Common Core but this is neither here nor there because I am not a teacher and I only train non human primates (unless you count my husband).

I had to do some re-adjustment with the size of my stimuli after running a few testing trials this week. Thank goodness my husband can get it done in a matter of minutes! You might think you are 100% prepared but when you actually work with your subjects, you'll notice that YOU ARE NOT PREPARED.

On a related note, I am so glad I was able to upgrade my Android tablet (part of my apparatus) to Lollipop because the lemurs were doing more than touching the screen. They were swiping on places they are not supposed to and that brings up the menu window or different tabs. Being able to upgrade to Lollipop will make it possible to lock the screen, so doesn't matter where the lemurs touch or swipe, the program will not tab out.

More training next week! And I might have a research assistant ...

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Citizen Science: Pet Lemur Project. Have you seen a pet lemur in Madagascar?

Pet lemur in Madagascar. Photo from Citizen Science: Pet Lemur Project.

Have you seen a pet lemur in Madagascar? Please help a friend of mine, Kim Reuter, collect data on pet lemur in Madagascar and help inform a research program (Citizen Science: Pet Lemur Project) that is seeking to understand the pet lemur trade in Madagascar. Please take the survey here.

Pet lemur in Madagascar. Photo from Citizen Science: Pet Lemur Project.
About the Survey of Pet Lemurs of Madagascar project

The Survey of Pet Lemurs in Madagascar project aims to increase understanding of the pet lemur trade in Madagascar, which may be impacting over 28,000 lemurs every three years. Surprisingly, not a lot of known about the pet lemur trade, and this research program is aiming to change that!

This research program - a collaborative program by researchers at the University of Utah (USA) and Temple University (USA) - will collect information on the ownership of pet lemurs in Madagascar from the general public. Specifically, we are interested in the experiences that individuals living in or visiting Madagascar have had with pet lemurs over the past 20 years. We hope that our study can help inform conservation efforts aimed at protecting these endangered species.

Adults who have visited Madagascar and who have seen a pet lemur are encourage to participate by telling us about their experiences with those pet lemurs using our web-based form. Participation is expected to take approximately 5 minutes, is anonymous and voluntary, and can be completed at any time. More information about this study can be found by contacting the research team here!

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

May I Have Your Attention Please?

This is Week 3 at Duke Lemur Center. I had big things planned for this week in my "Things Raymond Wants To Accomplish" list. In reality, it is far more mundane. Not an animal trainer myself (not applied, anyway), but I had thought that training lemurs would be a much quicker endeavor than teaching snails to spell out "YASSS MAMA". Apparently not.

Within the subjects that I am working with, it seems that most of them will take a long time to train. I have lucked out that a pair of lemurs I am working with learned really fast and had gotten a grasp of what I want them to do in my trials. Most of them, not so much. There is a pair of lemurs that I have been training for 2 weeks and they are still learning that the black box inside the enclosure gives them a delicious treat. They still hiss and growl at the box though, and often times will mind their business before returning to the box expecting to find treats.

I wouldn't say I am frustrated because frustration is a useless emotion and useless things are, well, useless. I'll have to say that I sorta expected this and I have already drafted a back up plan before I even fly down here. Back up plan aside, I notice that most of the downtime when I'm training these lemurs is to get them to pay attention.

My initial fear with this experiment was that the lemurs will not be interested in apparatus. However, it isn't so. Each subject's first session with the apparatus was them running towards the box to investigate. Getting them to sustain their attention to the task at hand is the problem. Some of these lemurs would sniff around the box, sit on top of it, run up and around the enclosure before sitting in front of the box for a few seconds (that's the time when I have to positively reinforce them) before moving away again. Training them to associate looking at the box for a food reward seems to be hard enough, let alone reinforcing them that eventually they have to touch the box for a food reward. I find myself oftentimes dispensing food reward just to attract them to come back to the box. But if you want your food reward, you HAVE TO ACTUALLY DO THINGS!

Back to the grind tomorrow ... with hope.

Monday, June 1, 2015


I went home to NYC over the weekend to spend time with my husband and my cats. I was supposed to fly back to Durham, NC on Sunday evening but due to severe thunderstorms, my flight was delayed for a few hours and then eventually canceled. I had to rebook my flight out of NYC on Monday morning from JFK. Due to on going construction, JFK only has one active runway so I spent quite some time on the tarmac waiting to fly out.

Dat line to fly out of JFK doe ...
Due to the delays, I missed my day at Duke Lemur Center today. No training. No data collection. I wanted to go to Duke Lemur Center directly from RDU but I got there around 11 AM and I would be at Duke Lemur Center after noon. Besides, I didn't get a good night sleep so I've decided to just head back to the hotel. I don't want to work with animals when I am tired. You always have to be on your toes and give it your 100% when dealing with animals, not only for your own sake but also for the animals. I don't want to forsake my safety as well as the safety of the animals I work with just because I don't want to miss a day. Learning to let go is a virtue. o[ʘ‿ʘ]o

Whole craisins from Southern Season.
So far, I was only able to find "whole craisins" at Southern Season. So, I went there again today to restock on craisins. What? You mean you don't give your subjects gourmet craisins? I've talked about why I needed this specific type as food reward in my previous post.