Project Highlights:  

  • Great ape sanctuaries in ape range countries need to elicit the behaviours that will be essential to the apes’ ability to survive when reintroduced to natural habitat.
  • To do this, they need to be equipped with targeted techniques to understand the skills/behaviours that individual apes are not expressing appropriately, and methods to elicit these core
  • This project extends our NERC-funded research programme to elicit wildtype behaviours in zoo apes to the individuals that are most likely to be used to repopulate natural

Great apes are important resident species in tropical forests, having a key role in maintaining humid-forest biodiversity and forest regeneration processes through actions such as seed dispersal and dislodging of dead trees and branches. As Flagship species they also have an inherent value as an essential natural resource from which humans derive considerable biological, economic and societal benefit. Nevertheless, great apes are widely predicted to be extinct across most of their natural range within a generation – creating an ever increasing need for action.

Great ape sanctuaries hold the animals that will be reintroduced back into wild habitats. Forest canopies are highly mechanically complex; consisting of a 3- dimensional array of weight-bearing supports that are flexible, irregular and discontinuous, but captive enclosures tend to be much more homogenous and predictable. Preparing apes for reintroduction is thus a complex and challenging process.

We have created an Enclosure Design Tool (EDT) to elicit wild-type behaviours in zoo apes based on replicating the mechanical behaviour of tropical forest and the physical and mental challenges it poses for wild apes. Our aim now is to develop EDTs for chimpanzee, gorilla and orangutan sanctuaries/ rehabilitation centres in range countries.

A core problem is that the musculo-skeletal system and the brain both respond to the demands placed upon them during development. Strength and cognitive skills are built cumulatively, with key stages for both occurring during pre-adult years and a significant decrease in the ability to build strength/ new skills in adulthood. This studentship will therefore provide a research-base on the capacity of one or more  of the great apes (chimpanzees, gorilla, Orangutans) to learn and carry our natural behaviours across the life course. This will allow us to extend the EDT to all sanctuary apes and enhance the success of great ape conservation and reintroduction programmes.


  1. Literature review of the behavioural ecology of the chosen ape/s species. This will include locomotor ecology, cognition, social behaviour and learning and cultural transmission of skills and knowledge.
  2. Where behavioural ecology data is missing, undertake focussed field studies of wild and/or captive apes to fill knowledge
  3. Quantify how the behaviour of sanctuary apes differs from wild conspecifics across the life course. Building on observational protocols, this will build a unique, integrated dataset that will be compared to the behavioural diversity and activity budgets of the wild
  4. Use data from 1-3 to implement functional enclosure modifications appropriate for each species.
  5. Compare behaviour pre- and post-enclosure modification to evaluate success in modifying behaviour, and develop EDTs specific to sanctuary apes.

Training and Skills

CENTA students are required to complete 45 days training throughout their PhD including a 10 day placement. In the first year, students will be trained as a single cohort on environmental science, research methods and core skills. Throughout the PhD, training will progress from core skills sets to master classes specific to the student's projects and themes.

Training in the specialist methodologies required for behavioural fieldwork will be provided by Chappell and Thorpe. Chappell will provide training in sampling and recording cognitive and social, while Thorpe will provide training recording locomotor behaviour and ecology. They will provide additional intensive training in the specific advanced statistical techniques required for this project (e.g. linear modelling techniques such as GLM, GLMM and log-linear modelling), and statistical programming using R. This will also be required in order for the student to develop aspects of the EDT, through modelling the data and programmatically identifying key behavioural elements.


Year 1: Literature review of the behavioural ecology of the target species. Undertake training in behavioural ecology data collection at UK zoos. Build relationships with sanctuaries and apply for permits where relevant. Publish zoo work if possible.

Year 2: Extensive fieldwork at chosen sanctuaries to establish the extent of natural behaviour exhibited by the apes. Use the EDT process to modify enclosures to elicit absent or under represented behaviours and collect post modification data.

Year 3: Continue with fieldwork, with the possibility of additional fieldwork on wild-living apes if core aspects of behavioural ecology are unknown and permits are possible to obtain. Develop EDT and ensure full knowledge transfer in data collection and EDT process to sanctuary staff. Write and publish resulting papers.

Partners and collaboration (including CASE)

This PhD studentship is part of a broader research programme in which we are building partnerships with a range of organisations involved in great ape conservation and rehabilitation. Twycross Zoo and Chester Zoo are core UK partners and these partnerships facilitate links to Ape Action Africa, the Orangutan Veterinary Advisory Group and many other sanctuaries and stakeholders. Thus the student will be embedded in organisations at the forefront of great ape conservation. We do not currently have a CASE partner for this project but one may develop during the course of the project.

Further Details

We expect candidates to have a Merit or Distinction at MSc level in a relevant subject. Experience of collecting behavioural data on primates would also be an advantage, particularly under field conditions as this PhD is likely to include extensive field work.

Dr Jackie Chappell School of Biosciences

University of Birmingham

+44 (0)121 414 3257



Dr Susannah Thorpe School of Biosciences University of Birmingham

+44 (0)121 414 5040