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Wild minds: how do apes learn about and use their physical environments?

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  • Full or part time
    Dr J M Chappell
    Dr S K Thorpe
  • Application Deadline
    No more applications being accepted
  • Competition Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)
    Competition Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)

Project Description

The tropical forest environments in which the great ape species (including humans) evolved are dynamic, complex and challenging. Trees in tropical forests tend to fruit episodically. Individual trees may have ripe fruits available for less than one month per year (Milton, 1981), and availability is reduced further by strong competition from other frugivores. Arboreal apes also use the forest canopy to travel between foraging opportunities, which requires them to incorporate multiple sources of information when selecting a destination and route (Janmaat et al., 2014), or when crossing gaps between adjacent trees (Chappell et al., 2015). In addition, they make a new nest every night, which requires careful selection of a suitable nesting site within a tree, as well as the nesting materials and the construction method used (van Casteren et al., 2012).
These challenges mean that apes need to learn a great deal about their physical environments in order to thrive in them. While we know that both the minds and bodies of apes are shaped by their physical environments, very little is known about how they explore, gather information and learn about these, and how this process shapes their problem-solving abilities. The main aims of this project are 1) to understand the ways in which apes gather information about their physical environments, and 2) to determine whether exposure to more complex and dynamic physical environments alters the way that they solve problems (such as complex foraging and nest building). The project will involve field work on apes in captive environments (UK zoos, sanctuaries and rehabilitation centres in Africa and/or Indonesia), and the development of novel sensor technologies with which to quantify exploration and information gathering behaviour in apes. This information will help us to design better enclosures for captive apes, as well as pinpointing the critical environmental features used by wild apes, which will be useful for in situ conservation projects.
This project has not been co-developed before submission with other partners. However, both supervisors already have a strong working relationship with the CENTA2 partner Twycross Zoo from previous projects, as well as other zoos in the UK and in Europe (e.g. Amersfoort Zoo, Netherlands), and chimpanzee and orangutan sanctuaries in Cameroon (Ape Action Africa), and Indonesia (Bornean Orangutan Survival Foundation, Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme). We will discuss the project with potential partners with the aim of involving one or more in co-developing the project in due course.
We expect candidates to have a Merit or Distinction at MSc level in a relevant subject. Experience of collecting behavioural data on primates would also be an advantage, particularly on great apes under field conditions as this PhD includes prolonged field work. Some knowledge of biomechanics and/or cognitive research is beneficial but not essential.

Funding Notes

CENTA studentships are for 3.5 years and are funded by NERC. In addition to the full payment of their tuition fees, successful candidates will receive the following financial support:

Annual stipend, set at £14,777 for 2018/19
Research training support grant (RTSG) of £8,000


Chappell, J. et al. (2015) The Ontogeny of Gap Crossing Behaviour in Bornean Orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus wurmbii). PloS ONE, 10, e0130291-15.
Chappell, J. et al. (2012) How to build an information gathering and processing system: Lessons from naturally and artificially intelligent systems. Behavioural Processes, 89, 179-186.
Janmaat, K.R.L. et al. (2014) Wild chimpanzees plan their breakfast time, type, and location. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A, 111, 16343-16348.
Tecwyn, E.C., Thorpe, S.K.S. & Chappell, J. (2014) Development of planning in 4- to 10-year-old children: reducing inhibitory demands does not improve performance. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 125, 85-101.
van Casteren, A. et al. (2012) Nest-building orangutans demonstrate engineering know-how to produce safe, comfortable beds. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A, 109, 6873-6877.

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