How do other animals think about the world? Why are their capacities different from (or similar to) our own? We answer these questions by studying the cognition, behavior and physiology of different primate species. We partner with parks, sanctuaries, zoos and research centers to study primate populations living in socially- and ecologically-rich contexts, often semi-free-ranging. To study nonhuman cognition, we design games that primates play to get a treat, or show them novel stimuli to see how they respond. We further collaborate with veterinarians to collect biological samples either voluntarily or during routine health exams, and we collaborate with organizations studying wild primates to understand cognition, behavior, and health in the field. Our research always prioritizes the conservation, welfare, and well-being of the primates we work with, many of which are endangered species. We also aim to promote sharing of knowledge and capacity-building with local collaborators and partner institutions in our work.

Finally, we study the cognition and behavior of humans using similar techniques used with animals. To do so, we test participants in interactive studies at our lab at the University of Michigan campus often mirrored on the games we play with nonhuman primates, and recruit larger samples of people in online versions of these same games.

Our research is supported by the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, the Leakey Foundation, and the Sloan Foundation.

Evolutionary variation in cognition

Why do some animals solve problems differently from others? A major focus of our research is understanding how variation in cognitive abilities relates to different species’ natural history. We aim to reconstruct human cognitive evolution and understand the evolutionary processes shaping cognition in general.

Recent publications:

See all publications about evolutionary variation.

Decision-making and cognitive control

Animals face complex foraging problems such as trading off between costs and benefits and flexibly adjusting their behavior in fluctuating environments. What cognitive skills do primates use to solve these problems, and have humans evolved unique abilities for decision-making and self-control?

Recent publications:

See all publications about decision-making and cognitive control.

Comparative development and aging

Humans exhibit a distinct life-history pattern compared to other primates, including an extended period of juvenile development and long total lifespan.  These life history characteristics are thought to re-shape human cognitive development. Studies of development and aging in other primates are therefore critical to understand human evolution.

Recent publications:

See all publications about development and aging.

Social cognition and cooperation

For gregarious species, social interactions can influence all aspects of daily life. For example, foraging requires competing (or cooperating) with others who are also trying to find food. This component of our research focuses on the skills that primates use to think about others, cooperate with others, or out-compete others.

Recent publications:

See all publications about social cognition and cooperation.

Spatial memory and navigation

Animals face complex foraging problems such as locating food, remembering the distribution of food across time and space, and navigating between these resources in their environments. What cognitive skills do primates use to solve these problems, do their abilities vary across species, and have humans evolved abilities abilities that allow for uniquely-robust spatial cognition?

Recent publications:

See all publications about spatial memory and navigation.

Primate health, welfare & conservation

Many of the primate species we work with are endangered the wild. For example, all species of nonhuman great apes are endangered due to habitat loss, human encroachment, and the bushmeat and pet trades. We partner with welfare and conservation organizations like the Pan African Sanctuary Alliance (PASA) to address these issues, and further conduct research on primate health and welfare.

Recent publications:

See all publications about health, welfare and conservation.

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