Dr. Isabelle Laumer

Max Planck Research Group Schuppli

Main Focus

I’m a Cognitive Biologist and Primatologist with strong interest the evolution of cognitive abilities. For more than ten years, I have intensively studied great apes and parrots at various institutions, including the University of Vienna, Austria, the Max-Planck-Institute for Anthropology, Leipzig, Germany, the University of California Los Angeles, U.S., and the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior, Konstanz. 

My research focuses on physical cognition (tool-use & manufacture, tool innovation, template matching from memory, flexible multi-dimensional decision-making, exploration behavior, self-medication, problem-solving & curiosity) and extends to social cognition (prosociality, inequity aversion, delay of gratification, theory of mind and the evolution of humor/playful teasing). 

In the course of my master thesis I studied the ability of Goffin cockatoos to delay gratification in an adapted version of the marshmallow test in children. Thereafter I achieved a PhD fellowship and investigated the cognitive abilities underlying tool-related problem solving and tool innovation in orangutans and Goffin cockatoos with Alice Auersperg, Thomas Bugnyar and Josep Call. Furthermore, I conducted studies on prosociality and inequity aversion in collaboration with Jorg Massen.

Afterwards I worked as postdoctoral researcher at Erica Cartmill’s lab at the Department of Anthropology at the University of California Los Angeles, US, on a project on playful teasing and humor in the four great ape species (chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas and orangutans) using behavioral observation, touchscreen, pupillometry, and thermal imaging techniques in collaboration with William Hopkins, Federico Rossano, Laura Lewis, Johanna Eckert and Chris Krupenye. One of the resulting studies found that all four species of great apes show playful teasing, that is in many ways comparable to human infant teasing and that it is likely that our last common ancestor already showed similar forms of this behavior.

In my current postdoctoral position at the Max Planck Institute in Konstanz I’m investigating exploration behavior in wild and zoo-housed orangutans and the interplay between cognitive performance and curiosity in wild, sanctuary- and zoo-housed orangutans and chimpanzees, as well as in humans from different societies. Understanding how curiosity and cognition interact and how they develop across species will shed light on what sparked curiosity during human evolution.

One of my interests is also self-medication behavior in great apes and we recently discovered active wound-treatment in a male Sumatran orangutan using a healing plant (Fibraurea tinctoria).

Research Areas

Primate Cognition, Avian Cognition, Animal Behavior, Tool-Use, Tool Manufacture, Innovation, Flexible Decision-making, Template matching from Memory, Social Cognition, Delay of Gratification, Inequity Aversion, Prosociality, Playful Teasing & Evolution of Humor, Theory of Mind, Exploration behavior, Interplay of Cognitive Performance and Curiosity, Self-medication

Curriculum Vitae

  • Postdoctoral Researcher at Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior | 2022 – present, Development & Evolution of Cognition in Great Apes, Supervisor Caroline Schuppli, Project: Great Ape Cognition and Curiosity


  • Postdoctoral Researcher at University of California Los Angeles, U.S. | 2019 – 2022, Department of Anthropology, Social Sciences, UCLA, U.S.; Supervisor Prof. Erica Cartmill, Project: Play, Joy & Humor in Great Apes; Data collection: National Center for Chimpanzee Care, MDACC, University of Texas, Austin, Texas
  • Associate Director, Diverse Intelligence Summer Institute | 2021 
  • PhD Candidate at University of Vienna, Austria | 2013 – 2018, Department of Cognitive Biology, Supervisor Prof. Dr. Thomas Bugnyar, Priv.-Doz. Dr. Alice Auersperg; PhD program funded by a uni:docs fellowship; Data collection for the PhD thesis at the Goffin cockatoo Lab, Messerli Research Institute, Austria
  • University Teaching Fellow, University of Vienna | 2017 – 2018, Department of Cognitive Biology, Lecture and practical course in designing scientific projects, Supervision of scientific projects of eight graduate students from international institutions.
  • Researcher at Max-Planck Institute, Leipzig, Germany | 2015, Department of Comparative Psychology, University of Leipzig, Data collection in great apes for the PhD Thesis, Supervisior Dr. Josep Call
  • Researcher at University of Vienna, Austria| 2014, Department of Cognitive Biology, Messerli Research Institute, Supervisor Prof. Dr. Thomas Bugnyar, Priv.-Doz. Dr. Alice Auersperg

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