Carnegie Mellon University

Monkey Business

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Chiropractic Meets Primatology

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Carnegie Mellon's Matthew Ward (HS '09) has spent the last year involved in a unique research project — investigating how chiropractic care might benefit gibbon monkeys and other primates.

"I heard about the opportunity in a class and wound up working at the zoo for a year," said Ward. The opportunity was covered in "Biological Foundations of Behavior" taught by Lori Holt, a Carnegie Mellon psychology professor.

Known as veterinary orthopedic manipulation (VOM), this type of chiropractic care used on animals could prove to be an effective, non-invasive way to increase the primates' positive physical and social interactions (grooming, swinging) while decreasing negative ones (fighting).

Over the past year, Ward has been collecting pre-treatment data on a pair of white-cheeked gibbons—named Mai and Picard—at the Pittsburgh Zoo. Mai has only one arm, the result of a bite from a previous mate.

"Because of this, her ability to brachiate, which is a unique form of swinging found only in gibbons, is severely limited," Ward explained, noting her digestion, reproductive behaviors and overall mood have also been negatively affected.

"It was our hope that VOM would improve connections from her brain to her affected systems through adjustment of the spine."

Ward says the theory behind this is that repeated one-armed brachiation, or swinging, over her lifetime (she's now 33 years old) may have caused subluxations (partial dislocations) in her spine. Post-treatment data collection is scheduled to begin in October 2007.

Ward enjoys working in the zoo's primate department, where he has witnessed things like a routine "knock-down"  during which all of the orangutans receive cardio and respiratory check-ups.

"Adult orangutans are too dangerous to be in direct contact with, but we were fortunate enough to be able to play with Jiwa while his mom was still being checked out," said Ward, who is photographed with Jiwa here. "It was actually pretty tough to handle him—his grip is twice that of an adult human, and he grabs with four hands."

He added, "Jiwa was also very into grabbing hair, especially mine, because at the time it was about the length of the hair on his mother's back, where he holds on."

Ward—who also worked with gorillas, lemurs, diana monkeys, mandrills, colobus monkeys, howler monkeys, cotton-top tamarins and a tamandua (the only non-primate of the bunch)—enjoys the unique opportunities he has at Carnegie Mellon to work with primates.

"Primates have very different personalities, just like people," he said, adding that Mai developed a pretty strong crush on him. "She would always come over to be scratched in the morning, and Picard, her mate, acted awfully jealous from time to time."

The original project idea was conceived by Michelle Farmerie, Mai and Picard's keeper at the Pittsburgh Zoo. More undergraduate research opportunities are available through Carnegie Mellon's Undergraduate Research Office.

Related Links: Undergraduate Research Office  |  Pittsburgh Zoo  |  Dept of Psychology  |  College of Humanities & Social Sciences