Project Highlights:

  • Qualitative characterisation of exploration behaviours of chimpanzees and orangutans to understand how they gather information about complex, dynamic physical environments.
  • Development of novel sensor technologies to quantify physical exploration behaviours of chimpanzees and orangutans.
  • Investigation of the effect of environmental modification on both physical exploration and problem-solving behaviour of apes, informing the design of ape enclosures in captivity and advancing our understanding of the interactions between mind, body and environment in wild apes.



The tropical forest environments in which the great ape species (including humans) evolved are dynamic, complex and challenging. Trees in tropical forests tend to fruit episodically. Individual trees may have ripe fruits available for less than one month per year (Milton, 1981), and availability is reduced further by strong competition from other frugivores. Arboreal apes also use the forest canopy to travel between foraging opportunities, which requires them to incorporate multiple sources of information when selecting a destination and route (Janmaat et al., 2014), or when crossing gaps between adjacent trees (Chappell et al., 2015). In addition, they make a new nest every night, which requires careful selection of a suitable nesting site within a tree, as well as the nesting materials and the construction method used (van Casteren et al., 2012).

These challenges mean that apes need to learn a great deal about their physical environments in order to thrive in them. While we know that both the minds and bodies of apes are shaped by their physical environments, very little is known about how they explore, gather information and learn about these, and how this process shapes their problem-solving abilities. The main aims of this project are 1) to understand the ways in which apes gather information about their physical environments, and 2) to determine whether exposure to more complex and dynamic physical environments alters the way that they solve problems (such as complex foraging and nest building). The project will involve field work on apes in captive environments (UK zoos, sanctuaries and rehabilitation centres in Africa and/or Indonesia), and the development of novel sensor technologies with which to quantify exploration and information gathering behaviour in apes. This information will help us to design better enclosures for captive apes, as well as pinpointing the critical environmental features used by wild apes, which will be useful for in situ conservation projects.

Figure 1: Chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes schweinfurthii) feeding on fruit. Photo: © Anup Shah / naturepl.com


Literature review to determine the current state of knowledge on problem-solving and exploration behaviours by wild chimpanzees and orangutans in order to determine gaps in knowledge.

Use observational behavioural techniques to qualitatively characterise physical exploration of captive environments by both species (in UK zoos).

Using knowledge gained in 2), develop novel sensor technologies to quantify target exploration behaviours in chimpanzees and orangutans in zoos and sanctuaries/rehabilitation centres in range countries.

Modify complexity of environments and quantify whether a) exploration behaviours change and b) problem-solving capabilities change before and after environmental modification

Training and Skills

Training in behavioural data collection techniques will be provided by Chappell and Thorpe. Both supervisors will also provide specialist statistical training (using R) on the key analytical techniques required (e.g. GLM, GLMM etc.). Thorpe and Chappell will liaise with colleagues in Electrical Engineering to co-develop the sensor technology required for the project, and provide training in how to construct and use the devices and analyse the data. Both supervisors will support skills development in delivering impact and engagement from the project with zoos, sanctuaries and the public.


Year 1: Literature review to determine the current state of knowledge of problem solving and exploration behaviours of wild chimpanzees and orangutans. Develop protocol for qualitative study of captive ape exploration behaviours and start data collection.

Year 2: Complete data collection for qualitative study and publish paper. Develop sensor technologies (UK zoos) and carry out quantitative study on exploration behaviours (sanctuaries/rehabilitation centres).

Year 3: Modify environments to quantify whether exploration behaviours and problem-solving capabilities differ before and after environmental modification. Write and publish resulting papers.


Partners and collaboration (including CASE)

This project has not been co-developed before submission with other partners. However, both supervisors already have a strong working relationship with the CENTA2 partner Twycross Zoo from previous projects, as well as other zoos in the UK and in Europe (e.g. Amersfoort Zoo, Netherlands), and chimpanzee and orangutan sanctuaries in Cameroon (Ape Action Africa), and Indonesia (Bornean Orangutan Survival Foundation, Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme). We will discuss the project with potential partners with the aim of involving one or more in co-developing the project in due course.

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.


Please contact us if you have further questions:


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