Current projects

A. Monkeys In Space:
Environmental Structure, Ecology and Cognition

As long-lived, slowly reproducing animals, primates face numerous ecological challenges to survival and successful reproduction. As group-living animals, the social world presents an equally diverse array of challenges that require the negotiation of individual needs within the constraints imposed by others. Most research aimed at defining and identifying the nature of primate social cognition has focused on the specific demands of the social world, and pays less attention to how environmental and ecological demands interact with these. Our approach stresses that an animal's actions are structured, supported and constrained by its immediate local circumstances. It generates the broad proposition underpinning our long-term research program - that primate cognition is geared to enabling advantageous responses to current contingencies. That is, they have been selected to exploit, as well as respond to, the unpredictable opportunities offered by both the physical (ecological) and social environments. Our long-term intent has been to bring these two perspectives together by considering how primates solve ecological problems in a social context. Most of our empirical work targets social dynamics and group coordination processes as instances of phenotypically plastic behaviours that have the potential to reveal both the scope and limits of flexible responses to environmental challenge.

Current Funding: NSERC Discovery grants (LB, SPH), NSERC Canada Research Chairs Program (LB), NRF Incentive Fund (SPH).

The Thermal Competence Of Social Endotherms

In addition to these general topic areas, reflected in the projects of various lab members, we began, in 2010, a large collaborative project (Lethbridge, Witwatersrand, UNISA, Western Australia, Wisconsin-Madison) directed at identifying the consequences of obligatory sociality for thermal performance under changing climates. To do so, we record body temperature from known animals in parallel with the collection of data on behaviour, physiological stress, spatial location and microclimate. This allows us to chart, not only individual responses to local conditions in both the short and long term, but also the ways in which group use of space reflects a compromise among a range of competing pressures, with differing outcomes for particular individuals. We are working on vervet monkeys, baboons and Cape ground squirrels, although we hope to extend the program to other species.

Current Funding: NSERC Discovery grant (SPH), NSERC CRC Program (LB), NRF Large Competitive Grant Program awards (SPH, Duncan Mitchell), Ernest Oppenheimer Fund (Duncan Mitchell), Carnegie Large Research Grant (Andrea Fuller), Claude Leon Fellowship award and Wisconsin-Madison internal funds (Richard McFarland).

B. Life History, Fertility And Reproductive Investment

“Life histories lie at the heart of biology; no other field brings you closer to the underlying simplicities that unite and explain the diversity of living things and the complexities of their life cycles.” Stearns (1992, p. 9)

Life history theory provides a robust evolutionary framework in which to situate studies of human and non-human primate reproductive and mortality schedules, in ways that also allow us to make direct comparisons with other species. In evolutionary terms, life history is the combination of the probabilities of survival and fecundity that a species displays in its natural environment, and is closely tied to the study of demography. In our work, we apply life history theory to baboons and vervet monkeys, assessing how females trade-off risks of intrinsic and extrinsic mortality against levels of investment in offspring. We also study reproductive decision-making in life history perspective in contemporary human societies, looking at both industrialised and developing nations. We are particularly interested in the process of demographic transition, factors influencing female fertility in relation to household composition and social networks, how fertility intentions map onto reproductive outcomes, and the question of whether fertility decisions continue to maximise fitness among human populations.

C. Human ethology: behaviour in natural social settings

How people respond to, and engage with, their environment under natural conditions is a way to understand the socially situated nature of cognition. In our work, we study the way people engage with the built environment in general, conducting naturalistic studies of parenting and play behaviours, as well as a current, more focused study investigating the art gallery as a behaviour setting, with the objective of understanding and enhancing people's engagement with art exhibits. Planned projects on human behaviour and thermoregulation will link back to our research on thermal competence.

Field Sites


Our vervet research takes place at two locations, both under the aegis of the Applied Behavioural Ecology and Ecosystems Research Unit (ABEERU) of the University of South Africa. The first - Loskop Dam Nature Reserve - is in Mpumalanga Province, South Africa - and consists primarily of Acacia-Combretum woodland. The second but primary site - Samara Game Reserve - is in the Eastern Cape Province and, as befits the karoo, is known, increasingly, for extremes of climate. Vervets have penetrated this semi-desert region along riverine Acacia corridors and, in contrast to the Loskop population, the reduced possibility of successful fission has resulted in a population characterised by very large groups living at high density. Project video (courtesy of Chloé Vilette):


Our initial baboon field work took place at the De Hoop Nature Reserve, in the Western Cape Province of South Africa (1996-2007). De Hoop lies along the coast in a winter rainfall belt and was proclaimed to protect its endemic fynbos plant communities. Its baboons are members of the species' southern-most population and our initial interest in them stemmed from their unusual ecology. We no longer work at De Hoop but are busy with analyses of the long-term demographic and social databases, as well as with the detailed spatial data set amassed by Dr Parry Clarke. More recently, however, we have habituated two baboon groups at Samara, folding them into the thermoregulation research program. Doing so allows us to compare the performance of two very differently sized social primates under the same climatic conditions.

Chacma baboons, particularly, are able to occupy a broad range of habitat types - often extreme - and our longer-term cross-population objective has been to understand how they manage to do so and with what social sequelae. To this end, we are now also  working on baboons at the Telperion Nature Reserve in Gauteng Province, South Africa.

Samara baboons

We are currently working in Western Independent Samoa and Nunavut, Canada. Located in the middle of the South Pacific Ocean, halfway between Hawai'i and New Zealand, Samoa is a natural fertility population in the process of transitioning to developed-nation status. Unlike most developed countries, Samoa still has a stable and relatively high fertility rate. Nunavit is a Canadian territory that comprises most of the Canadian arctic archipelago. Taking a multidisciplinary approach, we are investigating the variables that affect fertility. Topics include alloparental care by children and others, perceptions of 'help', 'work', and 'play', female fertility intentions, social networks and attitudes toward birth control, adoption and the desire for children.


Nunavut (Photo: Nicole Ymana)