Project Highlights:

  • Extensive field observations on wild orangutans to better understand the physical and mental challenges posed to them by their natural habitat
  • Developing innovative enrichments for captive orangutans and testing the efficacy of these at Twycross Zoo and in others captive settings
  • Working with zoo and sanctuary partners with wide ranging expertise to guide the design of a new orangutan enclosure at Twycross Zoo and to improve rehabilitation techniques for rescued orangutans to enhance ex situ conservation of endangered orangutans



Tropical forest environments are mechanically very complex; they consist of a 3-D array of branches and vines that are flexible, irregular and discontinuous. Forests also vary constantly through seasonal change, growth and decay. They are therefore unpredictable and challenging habitats in which orangutans constantly need to use their intelligence to solve problems associated with travelling through the forest canopy; finding and processing food and building safe, comfortable nests (Thorpe and Crompton, 2006, Tecwyn et al, 2015). Nevertheless, there remain significant gaps in our knowledge about how young orangutans acquire these skills throughout their development and the extent to which skills acquisition is influenced by their opportunities for learning from other orang-utans.

Moreover, the complexity of orangutans’ natural environment creates substantial problems for zoos and sanctuaries to replicate the physical and mental challenges that wild orangutans face in their everyday lives, within their available enclosure space and budgets. A major challenge is that the musculo-skeletal system and the brain respond to the demands placed upon them during development, and young orangutans may not reach required stages of skills acquisition if these demands are absent during key developmental stages. The aims of this PhD are 1) to better understand the physical and cognitive demands of natural environments for wild orangutans and the processes by which relevant skills are acquired throughout ontogeny and 2) to apply the findings to captive environments to ensure that zoos and sanctuaries can meet the biological needs of the orangutans in their care. This project is a partnership between the University of Birmingham and Twycross zoo. The results will guide development of new ways to replicate natural habitats in zoo and sanctuary enclosures to improve the quality of life and conservation value of captive orangutans and to contribute towards the design of a new enclosure for Twycross Zoos orang-utans.

Figure 1: An orangutan crossing a gap between trees


  1. Literature review of the behavioural ecology of wild and captive orangutans. This will include locomotor ecology, environmental 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 orangutans to fill the knowledge gaps most relevant to improving the quality of life for zoo and sanctuary orangutans.
  3. Translate those findings to develop mechanisms to encourage natural behaviours in captivity by creating enclosures that mimic the mechanical behaviour of natural forest habitats for orangutans and facilitate natural social behaviour. Test these at Twycross Zoo and other zoos where necessary and refine accordingly.
  4. Create a series of recommendations for the design of Twycross Zoo’s planned new orangutan enclosure and feed into orangutan rehabilitation techniques.

Training and Skills

Training in specialist methodologies required for behavioural fieldwork will be provided by Chappell and Thorpe. They will provide additional training in the statistical techniques required for this project (e.g. GLM, GLMM and log-linear modelling), and statistical programming using R. Liptovszky, is a veterinary specialist in zoo health management and Ellis specialises in captive animal welfare, both in zoo settings. They will provide training and support skills development in issues related to the health and welfare of zoo orangutans. All supervisors will support skills development in delivering impact and engagement from the project with zoos, sanctuaries and the public.


Year 1: Literature review of orangutan behavioural ecology to identify knowledge gaps. Undertake training in behavioural ecology data collection at Twycross and other UK zoos. Apply for permits for fieldwork. Publish zoo work if possible. Begin orangutan fieldwork to fill key knowledge gaps in orangutan natural behaviour.

Year 2: Complete field work and begin analysis of field data.

Year 3: Complete analysis of field data. Translate into mechanisms to replicate natural behaviours in orangutans throughout the life course in captive settings and test the efficacy of these at Twycross and other UK zoos. Refine accordingly. Write and publish resulting papers.

Partners and collaboration (including CASE)

This project has been co-developed with Twycross Zoo. Our shared aim is to generate new data on wild orangutans to better understand their natural behaviour and to translate those finding into improved conservation outcomes for orangutans in zoos and sanctuaries. Shared supervision will enhance the student’s experience by embedding them in zoological research and its application to the life sciences industry. The results will be disseminated via the Great Ape Welfare group (an advisory body for UK zoos which Thorpe Chairs); via Tywcross Zoo’s links to the international zoo community and via shared links to the orangutan sanctuary community.

Further Details

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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 on great apes under field conditions as this PhD includes prolonged field work. Some knowledge of biomechanics and/or cognitive research is beneficial but not essential. 

See the Enclosure Design Tool we have created to help zoos and sanctuaries encourage their chimps and orangutans to use wild-type behaviours:  


Please contact us if you have further questions:

Dr Susannah Thorpe

School of Biosciences

University of Birmingham

+44 (0)121 414 5040


Dr Jackie Chappell

School of Biosciences

University of Birmingham

+44 (0)121 414 3257