Development and Evolution of Cognition

Development and Evolution of Cognition

What we study

The evolution of high-level cognition remains one of the biggest unsolved questions in Evolutionary Biology. Cognition is selected for by cognitive skills and abilities which provide fitness benefits. However, interestingly, the larger brained a species is, the more incompetent individuals are at birth and the more they must learn to become fully functioning adults. This means that the larger brained and thus cognitively advanced a species is, the more its cognitive skills and abilities depend on developmental inputs. This phenomenon remains poorly understood and is the key focus of the Development and Evolution of Cognition Group. Our research aims at understanding how cognitive skills and abilities develop in individuals, to better understand cognitive evolution.

Orangutans as our main study species

Our current main research focus lies on the development of different aspects of cognitive performance, ecological skills, and cultural repertoires in immature Sumatran orangutans (Pongo abelii). We are particularly interested in how social and environmental factors affect the development of these different aspects of cognition. Orangutans have the slowest development of any non-human primate species, high cognitive abilities, and rely on many complex ecological skills. Furthermore, orangutans show a very variable social system ranging from semi-solitary to fission fusion with varying levels of social tolerance. These factors make orangutans especially interesting and suitable for our research. Through the SUAQ project, we are following a group of immature orangutans with their mothers and other association partners in the Suaq Balimbing forest in South Aceh, Indonesia.

Other species and phylogenetic analyses

To understand developmental patterns on the evolutionary level, our research is also heavily based on comparisons with other orangutan populations and species, as well as comparisons with other great ape species. Furthermore, to fully understand the evolution of higher-level cognition it is crucial to look across a wider variety of taxa. Therefore, we also investigate broader patterns between cognition, life history traits, social system, and ecological factors across a wide range of mammal and bird species. For this we use large datasets and a variety of different comparative approaches.

Ongoing and about to be started research projects

The Evolutionary Roots of Innovativeness and the Development of Great ape Cognitive Performance

With this project, we investigate the interplay between cognitive performance and the psychological motivation of curiosity in wild and captive orangutans and chimpanzees, as well as in humans from different societies.  In the frame of the project, we will correlate individuals’ cognitive performance and curiosity levels with their social and environmental developmental histories. We aim to measure cognitive performance across species and settings with a universal test and then investigate how it translates into sets of learned skills and fitness parameters. Understanding how curiosity and cognition interact and how they develop across species will shed light on what sparked curiosity during human evolution and on the evolution of humans' unique cognition. This project is co-funded by the Volkswagen Foundation in the frame of a Freigeist Fellowship grant.
This project is carried out in the frame of the PhD project of Nora Slania and several PhD and Postdoc positions which will be advertised in 2022. We will also have spots available for MSc student fieldwork-based subprojects.

Orangutan Ranging Skill Development

One of the major challenges that juvenile orangutans face when the start leaving their mothers is learning where and when they can find food. This project investigates different aspects of the development of ranging competence, including cognitive maps, planning and decision making in daily movement trajectories. Analyzing how individuals learn to navigate through their home ranges in terms of optimizing food intake, travel distances and nest locations, will provide further insight into orangutan cognition.  For this project, we rely on long-term ranging, behavioral and environmental data that have been collected at Suaq Balimbing since the 1990ties, and recently collected nutritional data.
The Orangutan Ranging Skill Development project is conducted in the frame of the PhD project of Emma Lukociejewski. We will also have spots available for MSc student fieldwork-based subprojects.

Orangutan Social Learning

Our previous work showed that orangutans acquire most of their ecological skills through a combination of social learning and socially induced independent practice. After establishing the basic patterns and compiling an extensive cross-sectional and longitudinal data set on measures of social learning, we can now start looking into the details of the development of social learning. This includes immatures’ choice of role models and changes in learning content as a function of different factors. We are also looking into the role of behavioral adjustments of the mother in the skill acquisition of her offspring.
Currently, these topics are investigated in the frame of different MSc theses for which we will be looking for new students in 2021. These projects can include field work or can be entirely based on already collected data.

Immigrant orangutan males as cultural vectors

The long-distance dispersal of male orangutans may be one way through which behavioral repertoires are being spread throughout the population. With this project we investigate the behavioral strategies individuals use to cope with the challenges of and at the same time make use of the benefits of migration.  Our goal is to examine how informational and social benefits drawn from cultural transmission between foreigners affect individuals` survival and integration into the host community. The project aims to shed light on which factors influenced cultural exchange, tolerance, and xenophobia during human evolution.
This project is currently conducted in the frame of the PhD project of Julia Mörchen at Leipzig University and the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology and several MSc projects. It is based on a collaboration between Dr. Caroline Schuppli, Prof. Dr. Michael Krützen from the University of Zürich and Prof. Dr. Anja Widig from Leipzig University and the Max-Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.


During their development, male and female orangutans choose different role models to observe - setting them up to learn sex-specific foraging patterns more

The award funds young scientists taking on high-risk projects more

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