Meet the Team

PI: Dr. Sofia Forss

I received my PhD with Prof. Dr. Carel van Schaik at the University of Zurich in 2016, where I worked on culture, cognition, and curiosity in both wild and captive orangutans. Since then, I have indulged in a variety of different – research projects: at the Eberhard Karls University of Tübingen, University of Lausanne and University of Zurich. In 2021 I became a Junior Research Fellow at the Collegium Helveticum, The joint Institute for Advanced Studies (IAS) of the University of Zurich, ETH Zurich, and Zurich University of the Arts. Since 2022 I’m leading my own research group at the Department of Evolutionary Biology and Environmental Studies at the University of Zurich, funded by an AMBIZIONE Grant from the Swiss National Science Foundation and the KONE Foundation, (Finland).
Sofia Forss_1

The Meerkat Cognition Project

Tommaso Sacca

Tommaso Saccà (PhD Student)

Tommaso received his master’s degree in Ecology and Evolution from the University of Groningen, the Netherlands in 2021. His degree incorporates two distinct projects. First, he studied wild and domestic Ungulate dynamics under different livestock management in the African Savanna of Serengeti National Park, Tanzania. He then worked on the role of male intrasexual aggression and female dominance in vervet monkeys under the supervision of Professor Charlotte K Hemelrijk (University of Groningen) and Professor Erica van de Waal (University of Lausanne). In 2022 he joined the Animal Behaviour Group at the University of Zurich to start his PhD adventure and study how social life, motivation, and ecology influence cognitive abilities and fitness in meerkats.

Zoe Turner (MSc student)

Zoe has a long history with the Kalahari Research Centre as she has been both a volunteer here as well as manager for the Zurich research team. This time around she will focus on research herself and join us for her master’s degrees. For her thesis Zoe will focus on social interactions, network analyses and how sociality affects behaviour and cognition in wild meerkats.


Martina Andersson (MSc student)

Martina’s home university is in Sweden at the University of Lund where she is enrolled in the master’s program of Zoology. For her master thesis she will join our meerkat cognition team and spend her time investigating behavioural flexibility and innovativeness in wild meerkats at the Kalahari Research Centre.

Elisa P

Elisa Protopapa (Research Assistant)

Elisa holds a master’s degree in Evolution of Animal and Human Behavior from the University of Turin. Her master’s thesis focused on exploring multimodal communication in Indri indri, utilizing deep learning techniques under the guidance of Professor Marco Gamba, including two fieldwork expeditions in Madagascar. Throughout her academic journey, she collaborated with the Department of Cognitive Biology at the University of Vienna, contributing to the analysis of ravens’ behavior in Dr. Palmyre Boucherie’s lab. Presently, Elisa serves as a Research Assistant at the Meerkat Cognition Project at Kalahari Research Centre, investigating the influence of social life, motivation, and ecology on cognitive abilities and fitness in meerkats.

The Urban Vervet Project

Dr. Stèphanie Mercier (UVP onsite manager, Simbithi)

The long-term experience working with wild vervet monkeys, her love for this sometimes “naughty” species, and her desire to take a turn in her career brought Stef to the Urban Vervet Project, of which she is now the on-site manager. Stef is habituating and identifying the troops of our new study population, training our students, and collecting data on these urban monkeys at the Simbithi Eco Estate, Ballito South Africa.

Adrian Mc Connell

Adrian Mc Connell (MSc student)

Adrian completed his bachelor’s degree in biology from the University of Lausanne and then joined the UVP as a Master student in July 2023. For his thesis, Adrian studies foraging behaviour and diet composition in urban vervet monkeys, with a sub-part focusing on dietary adaptation due to urbanization and how it compares to the diet of conspecifics in a natural environment.


Paige Barnes (MSc student)

Paige completed a BS degree from Michigan State University in both Statistics and Zoology with a concentration in Animal Behaviour and Neurobiology along with a minor in Computer Science. Her behavioural and cognitive experiences include working with mountain gorillas in Uganda and studying chimpanzees in Africa while a lab manager at the University of Michigan. From June 2023 Paige joins the UVP as a Master student from the University of Zurich. Her research will focus on cognitive abilities in urban monkeys as well as their innovative behaviours arising in this human transformed habitat.

Natacha Bande

Natacha Bande (MSc student)

Natacha is a master’s student in the ecology, ethology, and ecophysiology program at the University of Strasbourg. After a year spent in the Tai National Park (Ivory Coast) within the Tai Chimpanzee Project, she joined the UVP team in January 2024 to do her master’s thesis with us at Simbithi, studying human-vervet interactions, with a special focus on the relationship between vervet monkeys and dogs.

Oceane Luscher

Oceane Lüscher (Msc student)

Oceane holds a bachelor’s in biology from the University of Lausanne and currently she is completing her master’s degree in Behaviour, Evolution and Conservation at the same university. For her masters project and thesis, she will join the Urban Vervet Project and study innovative behaviours in semi-urban monkeys as well as their cognitive abilities. Generally, Oceane has diverse interests including animal behaviour, neuroscience, and conservation.

Melissa Ardila

Melissa Ardila (Research Volunteer)

Melissa is a biologist from Universidad Del Rosario, Colombia and graduated with a MSc in Evolutionary and Behavioural Ecology from the University of Exeter, UK. She is interested in urban ecology and the effects human activities have on animal behaviour. For her MSc she studied herring gulls, a species perceived as a nuisance, and her project focused on how previous experience with humans affects birds’ tolerance towards them. Joining the UVP in 2024 she will research vervet monkeys’ ability to read and interpret human body language and social cues.

Ape curiosity & Cognition


Dr. Elisa Bandini

Elisa completed her PhD at The University of Tübingen in 2018 working with Dr Claudio Tennie on the individual learning abilities of captive and semi-wild primates. After her PhD, she started a postdoctoral position at UoT looking into the stone tool-use abilities of wild capuchins (funded by the Leakey Foundation), wild macaques (funded by the Seedcorn Grant), semi-wild chimpanzees and captive orangutans. Since April 2023, Elisa is part of the cognition team at the Animal Behaviour Group, where she is working on the ARI project, researching the experience effects on chimpanzee cognition. Elisa is funded by The Forschungskredit, University of Zurich as well as the prestigious award from the Einstein Foundation, Berlin.

Christine Hrubesch (Associated Research Assistant)

Christine has extensive experience with captive chimpanzees for multiple years and from multiple projects, conducted at the Wolfgang Köhler Primate Center and at the Leintalzoo in Germany. She is now working on Great Ape Curiosity with us, funded by the Early Career Collaboration Grant from the Diverse Intelligence Summer Institute.



Lindsey Ellington (MSc student)

Lindsey studied at the University of Groening in the Netherlands and was the first student to join the Urban Vervet Project to do her MSc thesis with us. Her research with the Simbithi monkeys focused on exploration and object curiosity in urban monkeys. Lindsey graduated in 2023 and her thesis can be found here: Thesis Ellington


Manon Desaivres (MSc student)

Manon graduated in ethology at the Sorbonne Paris Nord University in 2023. For her MSc project she joined UVP to research human-wildlife conflicts in South Africa, studying human-vervet interactions, using both citizen science data and behavioural observations. Thesis Desaivres