Dr. Mary Brooke McElreath

Research Scientist
Max Planck Research Group Aplin

Main Focus

am an evolutionary behavioral ecologist interested in patterns of behavior and animal cultural traditions. In particular, I seek to understand how animal societies, and the individuals that comprise them, evolve and adapt their behaviors to changing ecological and environmental conditions. My taxonomic focus is terrestrial vertebrates – mainly small mammals, non-human primates, and birds. The questions I address have focused on mating, social, and dispersal systems, as well as on innovation, social learning, resource inheritance, and cultural traditions. I use a combination of theoretical modelling and empirical, field-based research to better understand these behavioral dynamics. Current projects include:

(1) Evolutionary Models of Animal Culture. The effects of age-structure, social structure, and biased social learning strategies are important to understanding cultural patterns in species with overlapping generations and complex social systems. This work is contributing to a theoretical basis that can be applied to a wide range of animal culture studies. 

(2) Tool Use in Non-Human Primates. This project bridges theory development from (1) with a comparative study of the ecological, demographic, and social drivers of tool use and extractive foraging innovation in multiple chimpanzee communities across Africa. This project is part of the Pan African Programme, a large-scale study of cultural variation in chimpanzees. 

(3) The Evolution of Bequeathal. Bequeathal is a form of resource inheritance whereby a parent disperses to a new territory, allowing an offspring to inherit the natal site. This behavior is a type of extended parental care, promoting offspring survival and fitness, and may be culturally-transmitted over generations. This is an ongoing, long-term field project focused on dusky-footed woodrats in Northern California.

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