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Mandrills, Turtles, and Tanuki: My three-month internship with the MacIntosh Lab

A blog by MacLab Intern, Alexander Hendry.


Greetings! My name is Alexander Hendry. I was introduced in Kasia’s recent post about Yakushima and in this blog post I will take the opportunity to describe my time interning with the MacIntosh Lab in more detail.

Alexander Hendry riding a snowmobile in Niseko, Hokkaido
Me riding a snowmobile in Niseko, Hokkaido

In September 2022 I travelled to Kyoto University as an exchange student from the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia. I was originally planning to come to Japan in 2020 (I’m sure you will be able to guess what global event in 2020 delayed my arrival), so I was very excited when I was finally able to start studying at Kyoto University.


My very first class was the Comparative Cognition class taught by Andrew MacIntosh. During this class Andrew mentioned that he also taught an intensive Zoo Biology class as well. Andrew noticed the Taronga Zoo and San Diego Zoo stickers on my laptop and correctly guessed that I would be interested in enrolling in this course.


Ever since I was a young child, I have had a passion for zoos and wildlife, and I insisted that ever family trip I went on stopped by at least one zoo. As I grew older, I learnt more about the conservation work zoos do, and the considerable welfare issues many zoos face. I decided that I wanted to use my career to tackle the twin challenges of wildlife conservation and ensuring zoo animal welfare.


I was therefore very keen to enrol in the Zoo Biology course and I spent a fascinating weekend discussing the goals of a modern zoo with Andrew, Kasia, and the other zoo biology students. After the group visit to the Kyoto City Zoo, I asked Andrew if I could do an internship with his lab group and, happily for me, he said yes. In late March 2023 I moved to Inuyama and began my internship.


Alexander Hendry standing in front of the Kyoto University clock tower. After a two-year delay it was incredible to finally arrive in Japan in September 2022.
Me standing in front of the Kyoto University clock tower. After a two-year delay it was incredible to finally arrive in Japan in September 2022.

fter a crash course in using the zoo animal behaviour monitoring app ZooMonitor, I began observations of captive primates at the Japan Monkey Centre, or JMC.


The JMC opened in 1956 and is the world’s most diverse curated collection of primates. The centre is home to almost every primate you could imagine including marmosets and tamarins, lemurs and pottos, baboons, macaques and spider monkeys, gibbons, chimpanzees, and even a western lowland gorilla called Taro (who celebrate his 50th birthday during my internship).


The gorilla Taro celebrating his 50th birthday at the Japan Monkey Centre. Attending a birthday party for a gorilla was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience!
Taro celebrating his 50th birthday at the Japan Monkey Centre. Attending a birthday party for a gorilla was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience!

I walked around the JMC, observing the various primates on display to decide which species I would do my internship project on. Andrew and I noticed that mandrills were being housed in several different enclosures (habitats, as they are called by zoo professionals) throughout the JMC which varied in their size, floor substrate, and social grouping. I decided that these mandrills would make a great set of subjects to examine.


My task then became to monitor the behaviour of the JMC’s mandrills and calculate their behavioural diversity. Monitoring these mandrills would allow me to assess if and how the different features of the enclosures (as well as external factors such as temperature and visitor numbers) affected the behavioural expression and, ultimately, the welfare of these mandrills.


Before I dive into my results, I had better explain exactly what a mandrill is and how behavioural diversity works. Well, the mandrill is the world’s largest species of monkey. They are known for their distinctive, colourful faces and extreme sexual size dimorphism (the males can be three time heavier than females!). You may recognize the character Rafiki from the Disney film ‘The Lion King’ as a mandrill, though his appearance on the African savannah is not biogeographically accurate, as mandrills are strictly a rainforest species limited to west Africa.


Alexander Hendry's hand and Sanfuji, one of the male mandrills living at the Japan Monkey Centre. Mandrills are the world’s largest monkey species.
My hand and Sanfuji, one of the male mandrills living at the Japan Monkey Centre. Mandrills are the world’s largest monkey species.

Now to explain behavioural diversity. Behavioural diversity is a method to quantify an animal’s behaviour that is increasingly being adopted by zoo biologists. Andrew had recently invited Dr. Lance Miller of the Chicago Zoological Society – a leading proponent of behavioural diversity as an animal welfare indicator – to speak at a symposium on animal welfare held at Kyoto City Zoo. So behavioural diversity was front of mind.


Anyway, this method assigns a score to a focal observation session based on how many different behaviours were observed in that session and for how long each behaviour was displayed, using a formula originally designed to assess species diversity in ecological communities.


With those explanation out of the way, what did I end up finding? Well, I’m still working it out, but here’s what seems to be coming out of the data.


I found that the presence of a leaf litter substrate on the floor of an enclosure significantly increased the behavioural diversity of the mandrills. This is not a surprising result, as wild mandrills spend around two thirds of their day foraging, so the foraging opportunities that a leaf litter substrate provides promotes activity in captive mandrills and likely improves their behavioural welfare.


I also found that older mandrills showed less behavioural diversity than younger mandrills. This finding shows the importance of zoo managers considering the individual circumstances of their animals when assessing their welfare.


I hope my internship project at the Japan Monkey Centre with the MacIntosh Lab will contribute to improving the housing and husbandry of mandrills, both there and beyond.


a mandrill in an enclosure with a leaf litter substrate
Housing mandrills with a leaf litter substrate that allows for foraging opportunities, such as in this enclosure, likely improves the behavioural welfare of mandrills in captivity.

The mandrill project wasn’t the only project I was involved with during my time interning in the MacIntosh Lab.


During a lab meeting Andrew invited me to travel to Yakushima. Keen to spend some time doing fieldwork on this unique World Heritage listed island, I eagerly agreed. After a busy three weeks of preparation, I boarded a flight to Kagoshima and soon was on the ferry to Yakushima.


Andrew and Kasia have detailed the YakuTan project in previous posts on this blog (like here and here), so I will not spend too much time describing it here.


However, to provide a quick recap, through circumstances that aren’t entirely clear, the 500 km2 island of Yakushima was invaded by tanuki (also called raccoon dogs in English) from mainland Japan. The precise effect of this invasive species on the ecosystem of Yakushima is not clear, and the YakuTan project aims to determine how the tanuki could be spreading parasites on the island and if their predation on native species is adversely affecting their populations.


During my time on the island, I worked with a diverse group of students and interns to try and find tanuki latrines. These latrines can provide clues on what parasites the tanuki are hosting and what they are eating. Unfortunately, I personally did not find any new latrines during my time on the island, but as I strolled on the white sand beaches whilst admiring the azure blue water of the East China Sea, I concluded that there were plenty of worse places I could be doing fieldwork in!


Inakahama Beach, Yakushima. Sea turtle breeding grounds.
Inakahama Beach, Yakushima. The verdant green mountains and bright blue water made hiking in hot weather bearable.

Whilst I was on Yakushima, I also had the unique opportunity to watch sea turtles come to shore to lay eggs and saw many adorable monkeys in the forest. As there are no wild primates in Australia, seeing Japanese macaques as I hiked around Yakushima was a surreal and exciting experience.


I also visited Yakusugi Land with some other interns. Yakusugi Land is a park in the middle of Yakushima which is home to some impressive Yakusugi trees (Yakushima cedar) that are over 1000 years old.


My week on Yakushima was unforgettable and I certainly plan to return to this unique slice of paradise in the future.


Japanese macaque on Yakushima Island sitting on a log facing the camera
Seeing wild primates whilst hiking on Yakushima was a very exotic experience for me.

So that sums up my incredible three months interning with the MacIntosh Lab in Inuyama and Yakushima. As the blog post details, I had many great experiences and met a lot of interesting people too.


My time as an exchange student at Kyoto University and an intern at the Wildlife Research Centre’s Inuyama Campus was truly amazing and it reignited my passion for Japan and wildlife.


I plan to apply for the MEXT scholarship, and I intend to return to Japan very soon…


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