About me

I am an Evolutionary Biologist researching Animal Behaviour and Cognition at the Department of Evolutionary Biology and Environmental Studies, University of Zurich, Switzerland. My research focuses on the interlink between an individual’s social life and environment, motivational traits, and how these key factors cause variation in cognitive abilities. In doing so, me and my team, studies three different model systems across a variety of habitats targeting distinct levels of research questions. In the meerkat cognition project, we combine comparative cognition with behavioral ecology to seek evolutionary explanations for interindividual variation in cognitive potential and the link between cognition and biological fitness. In the Urban Vervet project, the main goal is to better understand the causes and consequences for primates adapting to anthropogenic changes. In the great apes, particularly chimpanzees, we are studying how variation and accumulation of previous experiences affect not only cognitive potential but also underlying motivational mechanisms, like curiosity – and its key role for lifelong learning.
Dr. Sofia Forss

Learn about Ape Curiosity in this Podcast Interview:

Research projects

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 especially concentrate on how these factors vary across an individual’s life and how they interlink with each other. Using social network metrics, our research aims include creating a descriptive picture of each individual’s social interactions and thereby their social integration skills and relationships through life. To gain an insight into the interindividual variation in cognitive abilities of mongooses, we are using so-called “wild psychometrics” that capture distinct cognitive demanding skills and motivational mechanisms. 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 groups of wild meerkats.

Kalahari Research Centre

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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).

Urban Vervet Project

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Ape Curiosity & Cognition Project

Tracing the Roots of Human-Like Curiosity: Developing a New Approach for Cross-Species Comparisons

Funding source: Collegium Helveticum
So far, scientific work on curiosity has mainly been produced by psychologists and a large part of the data is collated using self-reporting or questionnaire-based practices. Just like humans, animals also explore their environments and the things within it for their own sake. Since animal curiosity cannot be studied through self-reporting or questionnaires, curiosity must be identified through highly specific behaviours. The methods developed for these inquiries could also be of relevance for efforts to uncover how curiosity develops in non-verbal children. A key part of my fellowship at the Collegium Helveticum will be devoted to developing behavioural tests designed to capture comparable components of curiosity – in both our closest living relatives, chimpanzees, and in toddlers.

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.