Julia Mörchen

Doctoral Student
Max Planck Research Group Schuppli

Main Focus

Throughout human history migrants have been drivers of cultural change, contributing to the formation and diversity of local cultures by transmitting new skills and knowledge. Before the age of global connectedness, human cultural evolution critically depended on knowledge transmission during migration events, next to independent local invention and spread of variants. While social tolerance fosters mutual exchange of knowledge, and the likelihood of beneficial knowledge transfer with critical fitness value, xenophobic perceptions of unfamiliar individuals likely prevent cultural exchange. However, social learning between unfamiliar individuals can also entail costs, such as competition over resources, or the increased likelihood of harmful disease transmission. Accordingly, there is likely strong selective pressure on traits that allow individuals to balance the costs and benefits of associating and social learning from an unfamiliar individual.

In my Ph.D. project, I investigate the evolutionary roots of the underlying behavioral adaptions of migrants and locals to the consequences of migration, by using the highly socially tolerant Sumatran orangutan (Pongo abelii) and the less tolerant Bornean orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus wurmbii) as model species. The two species differ in their evolved levels of social tolerance due to differences in the island’s forests` productivity. In both species, orangutan males disperse over large distances when reaching sexual maturity. Orangutans are known to be highly cultural great apes and are thus the ideal study system for this project.

The ultimate goal for this Ph.D. project is to examine how the exchange of beneficial knowledge between unfamiliar individuals can affect i.) their social learning behaviour ii.) the quality of their cultural repertories and thus likely their overall fitness. To assess potential links between social integration and fitness, we will iii.) link levels of social integration with measures of reproductive success including copulation frequencies, body condition, and ecological competence.

Curriculum Vitae

Current position

2023. PhD candidate, Development and Evolution of Cognition Research Group, Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior, Konstanz, Germany

2019-2023. PhD candidate, Primate Behavioral Ecology Research Group, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig & Behavioral Ecology Research Group, Institute of Biology, University of Leipzig


2013-2016. Master of Science in Biology, University of Hamburg, Germany, Supervised by: Prof. Carel van Schaik & Prof. Jutta Schneider, Final grade: excellent (GPA 1.19). Master Thesis: “Learning from the immigrants: dispersing orangutan males as cultural vectors”

2014-2015. Erasmus Mobility Student, University of Zurich, Switzerland

2010-2013. Bachelor of Science in Biology, University of Hamburg, Supervised by: Prof. Julia Fischer & Prof. Jutta Schneider, Final grade: excellent (GPA 1.25). Bachelor Thesis: “Effects of Ageing in social interest in Barbary macaques (Macaca sylvanus) - testing predictions from socio-emotional selectivity theory”

2008-2010. Research student & Veterinary assistant, Zoo Palmitos Park, Canary Island, Study abroad Program of Free University Berlin, during Bachelor Biology studies

2008. Matura, Friedrich- von- Spee School, Paderborn, Germany

Work experience

2019-2021. Project leader, SORAYA Orangutan project (www.suaq.org)

2014, 2017-2018. Freelance Biologist, Agency for Environment and Energy, City of Hamburg, Department of Conservation

2017. Freelance Biologist, “Hadabuan Hills” Expedition, North Sumatra, Indonesia

2017. Scientific advisor GEO Magazine, for a reportage on Culture in Sumatran Orangutans, Indonesia

2017. Freelance Biologist, NGO “Lebensraum Regenwald e.V.” in collaboration with BOSF (Bornean Orangutan Survival Foundation)

2011-2012. Research Assistant, Zoological Institute & Museum, University of Hamburg

2012. Volunteer Research student, “Living Links to Human Evolution” Research Center, Edinburgh Zoo, University of St. Andrews, School of Psychology, United Kingdom

2011. Research assistant, Bio Center Klein Flottbek, University of Hamburg, Germany, Course “Biodiversity of plants”, Supervised: Dr. Barbara Rudolph

2009-2010. Research student, Zoo Palmitos Park, Canary Island, Study abroad Program of Free University Berlin

Publications and selected talks

Mörchen J, Luhn F, Wassmer O, Kunz JA, Kulik L, van Noordwijk MA, van Schaik CP, Rianti P, Utami Atmoko SS, Widdig A and Schuppli C. (2023). “Migrant orangutan males use social learning to adapt to new habitat after dispersal”. Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution, 11:1158887. doi: 10.3389/fevo.2023.1158887. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fevo.2023.1158887/full

Mörchen J, Luhn F, Wassmer O, Kunz JA, Kulik L, van Noordwijk MA, Rianti P, Rahmaeti T, Utami Atmoko SS, Widdig A and Schuppli C. (Submitted). “Orangutan males make increased use of social learning opportunities, when resource availability is high”. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=4603950 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.4603950

Ehmann B, van Schaik CP, Ashbury AM, Mörchen J, Musdarlia H, Utami Atmoko SS, van Noordwijk MA, & Schuppli C. (2021). “Immature wild orangutans acquire relevant ecological knowledge through sex-specific attentional biases during social learning”. PLoS Biology, 19: e3001173. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.3001173

Gruber T, Luncz LV, Mörchen J, Schuppli C, Kendal RL, & Hockings K. (2019). “Cultural change in animals: A flexible behavioural adaptation to human disturbance”. Palgrave Communications 5, 64 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41599-019-0271-4

Mörchen J. (2023). Oral presentation. “Migrant orangutan males use social learning to learn about new habitat after dispersal”. IPS-MPS Conference, Kuching, Malaysia.

Mörchen J. (2022). Oral presentation. “A lifetime of social learning in orangutans: adult male migrants learn after dispersal”. Invited talk at the Scientific discussion meeting “The emergence of collective knowledge and cumulative culture in animals, humans and machines”, The Royal Society, London. https://royalsociety.org/science-events-and-lectures/2022/03/knowledge-culture/

Mörchen J. (2020). Oral presentation. “Why Orangutans need their culture”, Lecture “Series in Biology”, Bogor University, Indonesia

Mörchen J, van Noordwijk MA & van Schaik CP (2017). Oral presentation. “Learning from the immigrants: dispersing orangutan males as cultural vectors”, EFP conference, University of Strasbourg, France

Go to Editor View