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Don't throw it out: The Lemur Center wants your Android phone for research

The DLC needs Android phones to test how mouse lemurs perceive color.
The DLC needs Android phones to test how mouse lemurs perceive color.

Have an old Android phone? The Duke Lemur Center wants to use it for research on mouse lemurs. 

The Duke Lemur Center has begun collecting Android devices for research on mouse lemurs’ color vision, according to a news release. Raymond Vagell, a master’s student at Hunter College of the City University of New York who is doing research at the DLC, has conducted similar studies on ruffed lemurs. 

The DLC wants to create a “mini version” of Vagell’s study. But for that work, he used touchscreen tablets, which would be much too big for mouse lemurs, the world’s smallest primate. 

Sara Clark, director of communications for the Lemur Center, wrote in an email that the DLC has received five phones since posting the announcement in early July. Three came from the James B. Duke Hotel, another from the American Association of Zookeepers and the fifth from a private donor.

“We could absolutely use more!” she wrote.

The DLC noted that phones must be less than three years old and have all personal data erased. They also requested the phone’s charger.

In Vagell’s previous research, the touchscreen tablets were used to test if lemurs could detect certain colors. He told the Lemur Conservation Network that he trained the lemurs to target a red square before making them differentiate it between two color choices—one would give the lemur food, and the other would not.

Why does Vagell focus on the color red? The ability to distinguish red is particularly important for fruit-eaters like ruffed lemurs, as many ripe fruits are red.

Another reason of scientific interest is that those who cannot detect the color red are considered color-blind. The ability for ruffed lemurs and humans to detect the color is a sex-linked trait carried on the X chromosome. However, for ruffed lemurs, only females are able to perceive red. 

To conduct trials for color vision discrimination, Vagell designed a machine with a touchscreen tablet named SMARTA.

“When I train the lemurs to use SMARTA, I operate the machine manually but when they are doing the discrimination tasks, SMARTA runs automatically to decrease biases and reliability when collecting data,” he said. “Built within SMARTA is a food delivery system that dispenses food rewards.”

And the lemurs are quite fond of the technology.

“By the end of each session, I have to move the lemurs to an adjacent enclosure and get the other lemur to come to the enclosure where I set up SMARTA,” Vagell said. “The lemurs do not want to leave! It’s like a child that can’t get enough of their video games or TV.”

Nathan Luzum contributed reporting.

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