I am an evolutionary biologist specialized on comparative cognition and animal behaviour. I am a dedicated naturalist with a passion for fieldwork and simultaneously I love to explore the minds of animals through cognitive experiments in captivity. I am particularly curious about curiosity – why it plays a big role for humans and how is it expressed in other non-human animals? My research focus on what makes animals explorative and creative and thereby increase their cognitive potential? In doing so, me and my team, study the development of intelligence and how variation during ontogeny influence curiosity and thereupon following cognitive processes and skill learning.
The Meerkat Cognition Project
At the intersection of motivation and cognition: combining multiple predictors of animal intelligence using meerkats as a model system
Funding source: AMBIZIONE, Swiss National Science Foundation, Grant Nr_ PZ00P3_202052
Within the biological sciences it has long been debated how sociality relates to cognitive evolution. In this project we study inter-individual variation across four major factors, sociality, intrinsic motivation (curiosity), cognitive abilities and fitness. We will especially concentrate on how these factors emerge during early development in an individual’s life and how they interlink with each other. The project is taking place at the study site of the Kalahari Research Center in Kuruma River Reserve in South Africa, where we study multiple wild groups of meerkats. To gain an insight into their cognitive abilities we are using so called “wild psychometrics”, as the animal version of intelligence tasks adapted from human psychology.
The Urban Vervet Project
Primate cognition in an Urban world
Funding source: KONE Foundation, Finland
Due to the anthropogenic impact on the world’s ecosystems, on a global scale species diversity of non-human animals is declining, yet interestingly, some animals are thriving in human altered environments. One of a few primate species that manage well in urban ecosystems are the vervet monkeys (Chlorocebus pygerythrus). In this project we are interested in the cognitive causes and consequences of an urbanized population of vervet monkeys located at the Simbithi Eco Estate in Kwazulu-Natal south Africa. Working together in close collaboration with the Inkawu Vervet Project, incorporating wild vervet monkeys, we will adapt a comparative approach to study how the different habitats influence this species domain-general cognitive abilities, such as innovation and learning ability. We are especially interested in finding out to what extent the ability to seize new opportunities and successfully adapt to them depend on underlying motivational traits (like neophobia levels, exploration, and curiosity).
Ape Curiosity & Cognition Project
Tracing the Roots of Human-Like Curiosity: Developing a New Approach for Cross-Species Comparisons
A Re-evaluation on comparative cognition with chimpanzees: quantifying the effect of previous experience in research tasks on cognitive skills
Funding source: Forschungskredit, University of Zurich
Human behaviour and intellectual performance are known to be heavily dependent on previous experience and developmental inputs. Whilst this phenomenon is well-established in the humans by psychologists, the relationship between previous experience and current performance is currently overlooked in the field of non-human primate cognition. In this project we are systematically identifying and studying chimpanzees with variable previous experiences in cognitive tasks accumulated from research projects over the course of their lifetime, in order to provide a clear picture of the impact of research experience on an individual level for each participating chimpanzee.
Collaborators & Collaborating Institutions
- Prof. Marta Manser, University of Zurich and the Kalahari Research Center
- Prof. Erica van de Waal, University of Lausanne and the Inkawu Vervet Project
- Prof. Judith Burkart, University of Zurich and the Evolutionary Cognition Group
- DISI community: Dr. Cristina-loana Galusca, Prof. Alejandra Ciria, Dr. Fay Clark, Michelle Oraa Ali and Dr. David Harrison
- Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary and Wildlife Conservation Trust
- Leintalzoo, Germany
- Walterzoo, Switzerland