Current and Past Research Projects

Information about some of our current and past research projects.  For more information please contact

The Evolutionary and Developmental Origins of Inquiring Minds: Studies of Causal Reasoning; Curiosity and Executive Control 

Supported by the European Research Council (2015-2020)

Human technology is vastly superior to that of other apes: human tools from telescopes to the Large Hadron Collider exploit causal relationships but also explore them. What change over the brief course of hominid evolution made for such a big difference?  Experiments are ongoing to compare humans and other primates covering two broad lines of study: causal cognition and executive function.

Studying capuchins, chimpanzees and children – Dr Amanda Seed, Dr Christoph Voelter, Zeynep Civelek, Eleanor Jordan, Elisa Felsche, Patience Stevens – University of St Andrews

 The Cog in the Ratchet: Illuminating the Cognitive Mechanisms Generating Human Cumulative Culture

Supported by the European Research Council (2015-2020)

In human populations, skills and knowledge accumulate over generations, giving rise to behaviours and technologies far more complex than any single individual could achieve alone. This ratchet-like property of human culture appears absent in nonhuman species, as socially transmitted behaviours in animal populations are generally no more complex than those that can be acquired by trial and error. The aim of the RATCHETCOG project is to systematically investigate the cognitive capacities implicated in cumulative culture.

Studying capuchins and squirrel monkeyes – Prof Christine Caldwell, Dr Elizabeth Renner – University of Stirling

 Rethinking Mind and Meaning: A Case Study from a Co-Disciplinary Approach  

Supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council  (2015 – 2016)

Understanding thought and communication in animals and non-verbal human infants perplexes linguists, philosophers, psychologists and biologists. This project will bring together these researchers to consider how we might progress our understanding of what thought is, the distinctions between human and animal minds, and the relation between thinking and communicating.

Studying capuchins – Dr Juan-Carlos Gomez, Dr Amanda Seed, Dr Derek Ball, Dr Verena Kersken

 Exploring the evolutionary roots of cultural complexity, creativity and trust

Supported by the Templeton Foundation, USA – 2013-2016

A series of studies with children, chimpanzees and Living Links’ capuchins to investigate human beings apparently unique capacity for cumulative culture; the ability to accumulate knowledge, and improve technology, over time.

Studying the capuchins- Prof Andrew Whiten, Dr Lara Wood, Dr Lewis Dean and PhD student Jenny Botting (University of St Andrews) plus wider collaborators.


Past Projects

Is Mixed-Species Living Cognitively Enriching? Enclosure Use and Welfare In Two Captive Groups of Tufted Capuchins (Sapajus apella) and Squirrel Monkeys (Saimiri sciureus)

Non-human primates have complex relationships with conspecifics and also other animals with whom they share their habitat in the wild. Some primates, such as capuchin monkeys (Sapajus apella) and squirrel monkeys (Saimiri sciureus), naturally associate, with the potential to act as both proximate and ultimate influences on each other’s behaviour. There are a number of benefits to exhibiting such species in mixed communities in captivity, for instance the increased social complexity may provide environmental and social enrichment and appropriate cognitive challenges may provide environmental and social enrichment and appropriate cognitive challenges, ultimately enhancing their welfare in restricted captive enclosures. Monitoring how these species interact and utilize their available space is important for effective care and management. But despite this connection, there remains relatively little conclusive data on whether mixed groups of captive primates are cognitively enriching.

Studied capuchins and squirrel monkeys – Sophia Daoudi, Gal Badihi, Hannah Buchanan-Smith

Individual differences in zoo-housed squirrel monkeys’ (Saimiri sciureus) reactions to visitors, research participation, and personality ratings

Understanding individual differences in captive squirrel monkeys is a topic of importance both for improving welfare by catering to individual needs, and for better understanding the results and implications of behavioral research. In this study, 23 squirrel monkeys (Saimiri sciureus), housed in an environment that is both a zoo enclosure and research facility, were assessed for (i) the time they spent by an observation window under three visitor conditions: no visitors, small groups, and large groups; (ii) their likelihood of participating in voluntary research; and (iii) zookeepers, ratings of personality.

Studied squirrel monkeys – Zita Polgar, Lara Wood, Marie J. Haskell

The role of intentions and physical knowledge in the origins of causal reasoning

Supported by the Economic and Social Research Council (2013-2014)

Studying capuchins, chimpanzees and children – Dr. Amanda Seed, Dr Daphna Buchsbaum, Dr Emily Messer and Dr Emma Tecwyn (University of St Andrews)

Evolution and Development of Prosocial Behaviour

Supported by the Templeton Foundation, USA – 2011-2012.

A study of the motivation and capacity to act in the interests of others, in capuchin monkeys, chimpanzees and children

Prof Andrew Whiten, Dr Nicolas Claidière (University of St Andrews) Dr Nicola McGuigan and PhD student Lea Dollbaum (Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh).

Learning and imitation in capuchin monkeys

PhD project

Eoin O’Sullivan (University of Stirling). Supervisor: Dr Christine Caldwell.

Visual pattern learning in primates

Supported by the European Research Council

Using touchscreens to study pattern learning and physiological correlates in squirrel monkeys and chimpanzees

Ruth Sonnweber, Prof Tecumseh Fitch (University of Vienna). Host: Prof Andy Whiten.

Inhibition and the Understanding of Causality

PhD project, Carolina Mayer (University of St Andrews) Supervisor: Dr Amanda Seed.

Living Links to Human Biology and Medicine

Supported by the Wellcome Trust – 2012-2013

Extending our Public engagement with Science programme and evaluating its impact.

Prof Andrew Whiten, Dr Mark Bowler (University of St Andrews), Prof Hannah-Buchanan-Smith (University of Stirling) and Stephen Woollard (Head of Education, RZSS).

Social learning and behaviours of capuchin and squirrel monkeys

PhD project (completed 2013), Emily Messer (Univ St Andrews) Supervisor: Prof Andy Whiten.

Communication with regards to food quality  – Supported by the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science Observational and experimental studies of capuchins

Dr Hiroki Koda (Kyoto University, Japan). Host: Prof Klaus Zuberbuhler, Universities of St Andrews and Neuchatel.

Understanding of goal-directed actions and goals in capuchin monkeys

PhD project Ruoting Tao (University of St Andrews). Supervisor: Dr Juan-Carlos Gomez

Personality and Social Intelligence

PhD project – Blake Morton (University of Stirling). Supervisors: Prof Phyllis Lee and Prof Hannah Buchanan-Smith.

Preferences for faces and facial attractiveness

PhD project – Jack Griffey (University of Stirling). Supervisors: Dr Tony Little, Prof Hannah Buchanan-Smith.

Predictability of husbandry routines: impact on welfare in capuchins

MSc project – Kristina Rimpley (University of Stirling). Supervisor: Prof Hannah Buchanan-Smith

Anointing Behaviour in Capuchin Monkeys

Supported by the Wellcome Trust 2011-2012 – Experimental studies on the social aspects of ‘fur rubbing’ behaviours in capuchin monkeys – Dr Mark Bowler, Emily Messer & Prof Andrew Whiten (University of St Andrews)

Leave a comment