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Physical cognition and planning in primates

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  • Full or part time
    Dr J M Chappell
  • Application Deadline
    Applications accepted all year round

Project Description

How do animals represent and use information about objects (and the interactions between them) through manipulation and exploration? Do any non-human animals have simple ’theories’ about the behaviour of objects which they ’test’ during exploration or play? If animals represent these properties in a relatively abstract way (i.e. not mapped to a particular sensorimotor signal), they could use the information they have gained in another context, or even combine chunks of knowledge to gain new competences rapidly. Furthermore, if they can foresee the effect of taking a particular action or series of actions (for example, through mental simulation), they may be able to plan a sequence of events in advance of their action.

This suite of abilities (known as physical cognition, or ’folk physics’) may be particularly important for arboreal primates, which encounter particular challenges in moving around their environment. In particular, large-bodied primates like orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus and Pongo abelii) face the problem of how to cross gaps between trees when the terminal branches in the crowns of trees are very thin and unable to support their weight. The flexibility (’compliance’) of branches means that it is very difficult for them to predict how the branch will transform when loaded. Potentially, using compliant supports can result in energy loss if animals use energy to deform the support without using the elastic energy returned, but recent evidence has shown that orangutans actually use support compliance in many aspects of their locomotor behaviour (Thorpe et al. 2009). Moreover, since compliant supports change their shape when loaded, it is unclear whether primates like orangutans are capable of predicting the effect of their body weight on the support, and/or planning their actions in advance. These findings raise interesting questions about how much primates understand about the physical properties of their environment.

The aim of this PhD project is to investigate what primates understand about the properties of their physical environment, and whether they can plan their actions in advance of testing those properties. The exact species used will be finalised as the project develops, but will focus on primates, both in the wild and in captivity. The project will include the use of the following techniques: 1) behavioural experiments, where subjects are presented with ’puzzle boxes’ to test their physical cognition or planning; 2) observations of exploratory behaviour when using supports; 3) field experiments in which supports may be modified to observe the effect on the way that they are used by subjects. Intellectually, the project is inherently multi-disciplinary, spanning the disciplines of behavioural biology, psychology, and even artificial intelligence, philosophy and neuroscience, so a potential candidate would be expected to be able to work in a cross- disciplinary environment.

Please find additional funding text below. For further funding details, please see the ‘Funding’ section.
The School of Biosciences offers a number of UK Research Council (e.g. BBSRC, NERC) PhD studentships each year. Fully funded research council studentships are normally only available to UK nationals (or EU nationals resident in the UK) but part-funded studentships may be available to EU applicants resident outside of the UK. The deadline for applications for research council studentships is typically at the end of January each year.

Each year we also have a number of fully funded Darwin Trust Scholarships. These are provided by the Darwin Trust of Edinburgh and are for non-UK students wishing to undertake a PhD in the general area of Molecular Microbiology. The deadline for this scheme is also typically at the end of January each year.

Funding Notes

All applicants should indicate in their applications how they intend to fund their studies. We have a thriving community of international PhD students and encourage applications at any time from students able to find their own funding or who wish to apply for their own funding (e.g. Commonwealth Scholarship, Islamic Development Bank).

The postgraduate funding database provides further information on funding opportunities available and further information is also available on the School of Biosciences website


Thorpe S. K. S., Holder R. and Crompton R. H. (2009) Orangutans employ unique strategies to control branch flexibility. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106: 12646-12651.

Tecwyn, E. C., Thorpe, S. K. S. and Chappell, J. (2011) What cognitive strategies do orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus) use to solve a trial-unique puzzle-tube task incorporating multiple obstacles? Animal Cognition. DOI: 10.1007/s10071-011-0438-x

Beck, S. R., Apperly, I. A., Chappell, J., Guthrie, C. and Cutting, N. (2011) Making tools isn't child's play. Cognition, 119: 149-312.

Demery, Z., Chappell, J. and Martin, G. (2011) Vision, touch and object manipulation in Senegal parrots Poicephalus senegalus. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B. DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2011.0374

Chappell, J. and Kacelnik, A. (2004) New Caledonian crows manufacture tools with a suitable diameter for a novel task. Animal Cognition 7:121-127

For more information on Dr Chappell's general research interests or any other general enquiries, please see Dr Chappell's University of Birmingham profile (, her personal web page (, or contact her via email ([email protected]).

Applications should be submitted using the University of Birmingham on-line postgraduate application, details of which can be found at Applicants should indicate they are applying to the "PhD Biosciences" programme for research into "Physical cognition and planning in primates". They should ignore the question "Briefly describe your research interest...", but instead write a 1-page summary describing their research interests, and their experience relevant to the advertised position, and email this directly to Dr Chappell.

How good is research at University of Birmingham in Biological Sciences?

FTE Category A staff submitted: 42.80

Research output data provided by the Research Excellence Framework (REF)

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