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 semi-free-ranging primates. We partner with parks, sanctuaries, and research centers to study different primate populations living in socially- and ecologically-rich contexts. To test primates’ cognitive skills, we design fun games that they play to get a treat, or show them novel and interesting stimuli to see how they respond. We further collaborate with wildlife veterinarians to collect biological samples during routine health examinations. Our research always prioritizes the welfare and conservation of the primates we work with, many of which are endangered species.

We also study the cognition and behavior of humans, using the same techniques, to understand the evolutionary origins of the human mind. To do so, we test people in interactive studies at our lab at the University of Michigan campus, and recruit larger samples of participants in online versions of these same games.

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.

Development and aging

Humans exhibit distinct life-history patterns compared to other primates, including an extended juvenile period and long total lifespan.  Studies of comparative development and aging are therefore critical to understand human evolution. Our work on chimpanzee aging is funded by the National Institutes on Aging.

Recent publications:

See all publications about development and aging.

Decision-making and memory

Animals face complex foraging problems such as navigating between resources, 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, spatial memory, and self-control?

Recent publications:

See all publications about decision-making and cognitive control and spatial memory.

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 psychological skills that primates use to think about others, and how social context shapes decision-making strategies.

Recent publications:

See all publications about social cognition and cooperation.

Primate welfare and conservation

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), and further conduct research on how the public perceives the conservation status of primates.

Recent publications:

See all publications about welfare and conservation.