General Interests

I am interested in understanding the evolution of complex cognitive abilities in animals, in investigating what animals know about their social and ecological environments, and in asking how animals use this knowledge and their ability to learn about their environments in adaptive ways. Aside from being fundamentally interested in these questions, I also think that questions about animal cognition are particularly relevant in today's rapidly changing world. More than ever, animals need to be able to quickly adapt to new conditions and deal with novel challenges. I am interested in understanding the role of cognition in these situations.  

The evolution of intelligence

Why did intelligence evolve? Perhaps animals evolved certain cognitive abilities, such as long-term memory, because they needed to recognize, get-along with, and potentially even manipulate the behavior of other individuals in their social group. Or perhaps animals evolved certain cognitive abilities because they needed to find and remember the locations of scarce or ephemeral food resources, extract food from a shell, or even move their body quickly through a 3-dimesional environment. Most likely, intelligence evolved as a result of a combination of many of these factors. I am testing hypotheses to explain the evolution of sophisticated intelligence using members of the order Carnivora as a model group. Specifically, I am examining innovative problem-solving abilities across a range of carnivore species with varying degrees of social and ecological complexity.

This research is being done in collaboration with Dr. Kay Holekamp (Michigan State University) and Dr. Eli Swanson (University of Minnesota).

Innovative problem solving

Why are some animals able to solve complex problems whereas others fail? What distinguishes successful from unsuccessful individuals? I examined the role of motor diversity, persistence and neophobia in problem-solving success by presenting wild spotted hyenas with a novel problem-solving task. This work was published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society: B (see publications) and done in collaboration with Dr. Kay Holekamp (Michigan State University). 

In collaboration with colleagues from the University of California at Berkeley, I also did a comparative study examining differences in problem solving abilities between wild and captive spotted hyenas. This work was published in the journal Animal Behaviour (see publications).

Numerical cognition

Spotted hyenas are especially interesting in part because they live in very complex societies that are remarkably similar to the societies of some Old-World primates, such as baboons and vervet monkeys. They also live in fission-fusion societies, where all individuals in a social group defend a communal territory, but are rarely all found together in the same place at the same time. Instead, individuals in fission-fusion social groups travel, rest and forage in subgroups that change frequently in both their size and composition. We therefore expect that if intelligence evolved to deal with social challenges, that spotted hyenas should exhibit comparable cognitive abilities to those of other species with similar social systems. I conducted playback experiments to determine whether spotted hyenas count the number of intruders they encounter in their territory and whether they only engage opponents when they outnumber them. I asked whether this ability of hyenas was similar to that seen in lions and chimpanzees, which both live in fission-fusion societies. This work was published in the journal Animal Behaviour (see publications) and was done in collaboration with Dr. Kay Holekamp (Michigan State University).

Social learning

The ability to learn from watching another individual's behavior is incredibly important for the transmission of learned information and innovations throughout a group. Social learning enables individuals to benefit from the expertise and knowledge of other group members, and represents the basis for formation of traditions and culture. I am interested in understanding the evolutionary bases of social learning and how learning in general may be affected by the social context in which it occurs. 

I investigated whether hyenas learn from watching another hyena solve a novel problem, and which mechanism of social learning they utilize. This work is currently in preparation for submission to a journal.  This work was done in collaboration with Dr. Kay Holekamp (Michigan State University) and with Mary Weldele and Dr. Steve Glickman (UC Berkeley).

I am interested in understanding how social networks and the strength of relationships affect the spread of information through groups of animals. I am using European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) and zebra finches (Taeniopygia guttata) to study these questions in collaboration with Dr. Kevin Laland, Dr. Neeltje Boogert, Dr. Glenna Evans, Dr. Will Hoppitt, and Dr. Chris Templeton (University of St. Andrews).

Skill pooling

Groups of animals often have to coordinate their behavior and make communal decisions. Leaders and followers frequently emerge during these collective actions, with leaders often being those individuals with the most relevant knowledge. The majority of the time, however, it is unlikely that only one individual per group will possess all necessary knowledge, and often individuals will switch between knowledgeable and na´ve states. Although groups of humans excel at switching between leadership and followership roles and pooling different individuals’ knowledge and skills to solve complex problems, it is unknown whether any non-human animals are able to do this. I investigated this by examining whether pairs of foraging zebra finches are able to combine their incomplete knowledge to solve a multi-step problem-solving task. This work is currently in preparation for submission to a journal and was done in collaboration with Dr. Kevin Laland, Dr. Neeltje Boogert, and Dr. Tom Morgan (University of St. Andrews).

Other Research Experience

Studying lemurs (Silky Sifakas) in Marojejy, Madagascar

Hard at work at The Macaulay Library, Lab of Ornithology, Cornell University

Observing African elephants in Amboseli National Park, Kenya


Neeltje Boogert - University of Cambridge
Glenna Evans - University of St. Andrews
Steve Glickman - University of California at Berkeley
Virginia Heinen - University of Minnesota
Kay Holekamp - Michigan State University
Will Hoppitt - Anglia Ruskin University
Kevin Laland - University of St. Andrews
Tom Morgan - University of California at Berkeley
Eli Swanson - University of Minnesota
Chris Templeton - University of St. Andrews
Kevin Theis - Michigan State University

Follow this link to view my publications.