Gouldian finches

Animal Cognition Research Group

Active in both the lab and in the field

Our research focuses on the interactions between animal (including human) cognition, ecology and social behaviour within an evolutionary framework.

We investigate both proximate and ultimate questions, in the lab and in the field, in order to understand the mechanisms, development, adaptive value and evolution of animal cognition.

Staff experimentally investigate personality and leadership in birds, cognitive bias in hamsters and rhesus macaques and the neural mechanisms of somatosensation, olfaction and emotional behaviour. We are active in the field and engage in international collaborative projects in Puerto Rico, South Africa, the U.S. and Australia studying rhesus macaques, baboons, samango monkeys and birds.

Case study highlight

Developing attention bias as a novel measure of welfare in captive macaques – Dr Emily Bethell
(Details to follow)

Current MPhil projects

  • To mix or not to mix? Evaluating breeding performance in mixed species bird enclosures within European zoos – Yvette Foulds
  • The effect of genotype on attention bias in rhesus macaques, Macaca mulatta, as a welfare indicator – Isabelle Szott
  • What is Neutral?: Studying attention bias in Rhesus Macaques, Macaca mulatta, towards three different facial expressions – Harriet Thatcher

Recent PhD projects

  • Social relationships and social skills of young chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) in captivity – Samina H. Farooqi, 2013

Opportunities for MPhil/PhD

If you’re interested in an MPhil or a PhD please contact the relevant member of staff below to discuss possible supervision and research direction.

If you are interested in our MSc programme, see the course fact file: Primate Behaviour and Conservation (MSc).


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PhD students

Isabelle Szott

Thesis title:
The behaviour of African elephants, Loxodonta africana, at Madikwe Game Reserve, South Africa

Supervisory team:
Dr Nicola Koyama, Prof Serge Wich, Dr Antje Engelhardt

AESOP Erasmus Mundus scholarship, LJMU Matched Funding Scholarship
Hosted by the Centre for Wildlife Management at the University of Pretoria and North West Parks Board

Summary of PhD:
Madikwe Game Reserve holds over 1000 elephants, presenting the highest density of elephants in South Africa. I study their behavioural ecology with a special interest to stress-related and aggressive behaviour. Five minute focal animal observations as well as herd scan samples are carried out on known as well as random individuals. Additionally, I collect faecal samples for stress hormone and thyroid hormone analysis and record vocalisations for analysis of fundamental frequency. Satellite collared females provide spatial data for home range and spatial use analysis.

Preliminary results showed that game drive vehicle presence did not increase stress-related or aggressive behaviour in elephants. Data collection is ongoing and will finish at the end of June 2017 upon which faecal samples will be analysed and statistical analysis of all data will be carried out.

Future plans:
I would like to carry on doing field based research of elephants after I finish my PhD.

Emmeline Howarth

Thesis title:
Attention bias: a new tool for welfare assessment in captive rhesus macaques (Macaca mulatta).

Supervisory team:
Director of studies: Dr Emily Bethell
Additional supervisors: Dr Antje Engelhardt, Dr Craig Wilding

Leatherbarrow scholarship

Summary of PhD:
The way humans attend to and interpret information is associated with self-reported feelings of wellbeing and physiological changes neuromodulatory hormones known anxiolytic and anxiogenic functions [1-3]. Laboratory-based cognitive tasks that record responses (e.g. eye-movements or reaction speed) to emotional stimuli have revealed that biases in attention reliably map onto physiological and self-reported measures of affect [1]. Life-history and genetic factors have also been associated with these biases and, in humans, an attention bias profile can be used to identify individuals who are vulnerable to poor psychological health when faced with stressful life events [1]. Previous studies have shown that these methods may be adapted to measure attention bias in non-human primates, providing a new measure of welfare, an area notoriously difficult to assess [4-6]. The study will build on recent work, showing attention bias to be a promising new method of welfare assessment, to validate a state-of-the-art eye-tracking tool to non-invasively assess welfare in captive primates. One-hundred female rhesus macaques will be involved in this part of the study and data collection will occur before and after the macaques’ annual health check, an acutely stressful event. Following this, the next step in non-human primate attention bias research is to understand the underlying biological mechanisms. This is crucial for gaining a rounded understanding of the role of attention bias in the aetiology and maintenance of affect-related disorders in non-human primates. Urinary oxytocin and faecal cortisol samples will be collected from 30 macaques to determine if these hormones correlate with shifts in attention bias.


  1. Bar-Haim, Y., Lamy, D., Pergamin, L., Bakermans-Kranenburg, M.J. & van IJzendoorn, M.H. (2007) Threat-related attentional bias in anxious and nonanxious individuals: a meta-analytic study, Psychol Bull, 133(1), 1-24.
  2. Donaldson, Z.R. & Young, L.J. (2008) Oxytocin, vasopressin, and the neurogenetics of sociality, Science, 322, 900-904.
  3. Ardayfio, P. & Kim, K. (2006) Anxiogenic-like effects of chronic corticosterone in light-dark emergence tasks in mice, Behav Neurosci, 120(2), 249-256.
  4. Bethell, E.J., Holmes, A., McLarnon, A. & Semple S. (2012b) Evidence that emotion mediates social attention in rhesus macaques, PloS ONE, 7(8), e44387.
  5. Bethell, E.J., Holmes, A. & Semple, A. (2012a) Cognitive bias in a non-human primate: husbandry procedures influence cognitive indicators of psychological well-being in captive rhesus macaques, Anim Welfare, 21(2), 185-195.
  6. Bethell, E.J., Holmes, A., McLarnon, A. & Semple, S. (2016) Emotion evaluation and response slowing in a non-human primate: New directions for cognitive bias measures of animal emotion?, Behav Sci, 6(1), 2, doi:10.3390/bs6010002.

Future plans:
I want to continue to work improving the welfare of captive non-human primates, both in the UK and abroad, through research and working direct with animals and people in zoos and laboratories.


Search for a research paper

18 papers found

  • A positive touch: C-tactile afferent targeted skin stimulation carries an appetitive motivational value

    Pawling R, Trotter PD and McGlone FP and Walker SC

    Publish date:2017

  • A protocol for training group-housed rhesus macaques (Macaca mulatta) to cooperate with husbandry and research procedures using positive reinforcement

    Kemp C, Thatcher H, Farningham D, Witham C, MacLarnon A, Holmes A and Semple S and Bethell EJ

    Publish date:2017

  • Cellular mechano-environment regulates the mammary circadian clock

    Yang N, Williams J, Pekovic-Vaughan V, Wang P, Olabi S, McConnell J, Gossan N, Hughes A, Cheung J and Streuli CH and Meng Q-J

    Publish date:2017

  • Circadian Disruptions in the Myshkin Mouse Model of Mania Are Independent of Deficits in Suprachiasmatic Molecular Clock Function

    Timothy JWS, Klas N, Sanghani HR, Al-Mansouri T, Hughes ATL, Kirshenbaum GS, Brienza V, Belle MDC, Ralph MR and Clapcote SJ and Piggins HD

    Publish date:2017

  • C-tactile afferent stimulating touch carries a positive affective value

    Pawling R, Cannon PR and McGlone FP and Walker SC

    Publish date:2017

  • C-tactile afferents: Cutaneous mediators of oxytocin release during affiliative tactile interactions?

    Walker SC, Trotter PD, Swaney WT and Marshall A and Mcglone FP

    Publish date:2017