Zurich Communication Cognition group

Principal Investigator: Prof. Marta Manser

martaWe are interested in the understanding of animal societies. We investigate proximate and functional aspects on group coordination (leadership and group decisions) and in particular, communication and cognition in mammals. With a comparative approach we identify what selective factors favor communicative complexity (e.g., vocal repertoire size, variation in call structure within call types, call combinations, etc…) and the underlying cognitive mechanisms. We focus on phylogenetic closely related or sympatric living species showing variation in their social structure. Based on behavioural observations of habituated animals in their natural habitat we test specific hypotheses with field experiments, and also on captive animals.

Research themes

  • Communication and cognition in small mammals
  • Hormones and vocal production and perception
  • Communicative complexity and social complexity
  • Animal communication and human language
  • Leadership and group decisions in meerkats and banded mongoose
  • Social dynamics and mitigation strategies in cooperative breeders
  • Spatial orientation in meerkats
  • Caching behaviour in ground squirrels
  • Social and genetic structure of slender mongoose
  • Conservation of hares in Switzerland
  • Effect of domestication on understanding perception and deception in dogs

More information about current projects can be found by clicking on the group members’ names below.

Zurich cognition group

Vocal Coordination in the Meerkat “Watchman’s Song”


Department of Evolutionary Biology and Environmental Studies
University of Zurich
Contact: ramona.rauber@ieu.uzh.ch

Animals often face the trade-off between foraging and anti-predator vigilance. The sentinel system represents one way of minimizing this trade-off, by having one individual on raised guard, scanning the environment for the presence of predators, while the rest of the group is foraging. In species in which either the habitat or their foraging style does not allow individuals to visually check for the presence of a sentinel without having to interrupt foraging, sentinel typically give soft calls, called the “Watchman’s song”. However, in contrast to many other species with sentinel calls, meerkats have not only one, but six different sentinel call types. By collecting recordings and conducting playback experiments we aim at improving our understanding of vocal coordination in sentinel systems. This involves investigating ontogenetic aspects of when young start to produce the sentinel repertoire and whether individuals can establish some kind of reliability assessment depending on the sentinel’s age, experience as a guard or dominance status, based on which foraging group members adjust their own vigilance behaviour. Additionally, we are analysing the functionality of the high variation in sentinel call types, having found evidence that it provides the rest of the group with information about subtle changes in perceived predation risk.

meganVocal communication in meerkats: individual variation and dominance effects

University of Zurich, Department of Evolutionary Biology and Environmental Studies

Contact: megan.wyman@ieu.uzh.ch

Communication is crucial to social organization, reproduction, and social interactions in group living cooperative species. Individual variation within signals may be affected by a variety of sources which influence the information content of the signal. My research interests involve examining these sources of variation within vocalizations of free-living meerkats (Suricata suricatta). We will explore the social, environmental, maternal, and genetic influences on individual variation in acoustic signals using repeated audio recordings of specific individuals. One specific area of interest involves studying the effects of dominance on vocalizations.

In many species, information on dominance is contained in signals that are often held reliable by costs, constraints, or risks. Producing or attending to this information can be adaptive if it results in increased fitness benefits, e.g., reduced social conflict or physical harm, or increased reproductive fitness or foraging efficiency. In such cases, we would expect animals that transition from subordinate to dominant roles to show changes in signal parameters that communicate social status. This is especially true if these signals are constrained by anatomy or physiology that changes during these dominance transitions. This project will examine the mechanisms and functionality of vocal signature changes associated with attaining social dominance in meerkats. Specifically, I will examine potential changes in vocal production anatomy and acoustic parameters through repeated x-ray imaging and audio recordings. Playback studies will be used to test responses to dominance information within calls.

paulHabitat mapping of Kuruman River Reserve and surrounding ranches

Department of Evolutionary Biology and Environmental Studies
University of Zurich

Contact: paul.haverkamp@ieu.uzh.ch

My research interests focus on wildlife habitat utilization and distribution and I am using my background in remote sensing to develop a habitat map for the Kuruman River Reserve. I am using Landsat imagery along with GPS points and associated pictures taken from these points to classify and verify different habitat types important for the various species around the reserve, including meerkats, pied babblers, tortoises, ground squirrels, and more. Using this map, I plan to investigate the landscape of fear for meerkats, by examining different predator pressures and how anti-predator behaviours change in the different habitats. I am also interested in the acoustic landscape of the reserve, and how meerkats change call structure depending on the different habitats and vegetation.

Does tuberculosis infection impact meerkat movement?

Department of Evolutionary Biology and Environmental Studies, University of Zurich
Contact: siomha.campbell@uzh.ch

The movement decisions of animals impact resource distribution and disease transmission. In turn, diseases can modify the behaviour, physiology, and social relationships of an animal, as well as affecting group dynamics. Tuberculosis (TB) is a threat globally to humans, livestock, and wildlife. It has economic, public health, and conservation importance. One strain of TB, Mycobacterium suricattae, is endemic to  this population of meerkats. TB can be fatal to meerkats, causing clinical symptoms such as swellings, fatigue, and laboured breathing. Infection with TB has caused group level extinctions. To gain a better understanding of how TB affects meerkat behaviour at the individual and group level, I will look at how infection of TB impacts the group movements of meerkats using long-term GPS, life history, and health data.

I am a postdoctoral researcher whose work broadly concerns behavioural flexibility in animals at all levels, but particularly with regards to their communicative behaviour and the light this can shed on human language evolution. I am currently part of the NCCR Evolving Language team, where I am working with Prof. Marta Manser and Prof. Paul Widmer to explore the evolutionary origins of arbitrariness in language. I am also particularly interested in cultural evolution, social networks and and data science.

Contact: Stuart.watson@uzh.ch

Personal website: www.stuartkwatson.wordpress.com

Submission calls in female meerkats

Department of Evolutionary Biology and Environmental Studies
University of Zurich
Contact: mara.zali@uzh.ch

Animals living in groups benefit of many advantages, but they also invariably experience the costs of conflicts that arise when group members have different interests. Among animal species many strategies have evolved to reduce these costs, and one of them, present in some dominance hierarchies, is the display of submissive behaviours. Submission is displayed by the subordinate to signal its inferiority to the dominant. Among female meerkats there is a strong reproductive conflict, as both dominant and subordinate adult females can reproduce and resources for the pups are limited. To monopolize the breeding, the dominant female behaviourally suppresses reproduction of subordinate females by aggressing them, especially when she is pregnant, and she often evicts subordinate females from the group toward the end of her pregnancy. To avoid the costs of conflict, subordinate females submit to the dominant female through submissive body postures and bouts of fast high-pitched calls known as submission calls. In my master’s thesis I performed acoustical analyses to investigate what do submission calls convey. I investigated whether submission calls of female meerkats contain individual signatures, which could play a role in the regulation of the conflict. I also asked whether their submission calls convey the intensity of the reproductive conflict, which is higher when the dominant female is close to parturition and when subordinate females are older and more likely to reproduce themselves. Further studies on this topic may include behavioural observations, acoustical analyses and playback experiments to reveal more about the information conveyed by submission calls as well as their exact function.

Identifying conditions that elicit novelty-seeking across mammal species

Department of Evolutionary Biology and Environmental Studies, University of Zurich

Contact: sofia.forss@ieu.uzh.ch, www.sofiaforss.com

Cognitive evolution remains one of the burning subjects in biological science and has been my passion during my academic career. Whilst I previously researched questions regarding novelty response, problem-solving and social learning in primates, I am currently expanding my research interests to other mammals. Through a project funded by “Forschungskredit” at the University of Zurich I am working with Prof. Manser and the Kalahari Meerkat Project on a comparative study addressing novelty seeking behavior in the mongoose family. During this project I will undertake a few comparative approaches: a) examining reactions to a broad range of novel stimuli in three wild mongoose species within similar habitats; yellow mongoose (Cynictis penicillata), slender mongoose (Galerella sanguinea) and meerkats (Suricata suricatta) and b) to systematically examine social and environmental influences on novelty seeking behavior between several groups of captive and wild meerkats. In addition, I am collaborating with the comparative cognition group at the UZH, in order to study similarities and differences in curiosity between common marmosets (Callithrix jacchus) and meerkats, representing distinct taxonomic classes but nevertheless are characterized by similar highly social cooperative breeding social systems.

The influence of seasonality on Cape ground squirrel group behaviour

Department of Evolutionary Biology and Environmental Studies, University of Zurich

Contact: Katherine.fegan@ieu.uzh.ch

Animals capability to change their behaviour as a result to the changing in seasons has been documented as a novel adaptation to survive in extreme and unpredictable environments. The Cape ground squirrel is found to live in group clusters that can range in size of 3-36 members and interact in series of both amicable and non-amicable behaviours with one another. Due to the fact that the Cape ground squirrel is a social, group living rodent which does not hibernate, there has been little research done towards how different seasons can affect interactions between members within a group. Cape ground squirrels have also been recorded to move between known burrow clusters which has little research done towards what could be influencing group movements. My analysis will focus on using long term data from the Cape ground squirrel project and drone image analysis. I will be analyzing how the changing of seasons could be affecting what type of interactions are seen between members of known groups and if the changing of seasons has an influence on group movements between known burrow clusters.

Paternity in Cape Ground Squirrels

Department of Evolutionary Biology and Environmental Studies, University of Zurich

Contact: jessica.rivera@uzh.ch

One of the main factors that goes into an animal’s decisions to disperse from its natal group is whether or not there are available mates. In our population of Cape ground squirrels, some males disperse from their home group, but others will remain at home for their whole lives. When a female comes into estrous, males both in the group and from outside of the group can tell and will all arrive at the burrow to attempt to mate with her. I will investigate how this decision to stay at their natal group longer, as well as other factors such as age and general familiarity with the female in question, impacts the number of pups male squirrels father.

Emotion integration in meerkat vocalisations

Department of Evolutionary Biology and Environmental Studies, University of Zurich

Contact: isabel.driscoll@ieu.uzh.ch

Emotional encoding is ubiquitous in human and non-human animal vocalisations, either as a driver of vocal production or additional information encoded alongside meaning. In human vocalisation, both semantic and emotional information can be communicated simultaneously, but the extent to which this is present in non-human animal communication is unclear. Functionally referential calls in non-human animals offer the opportunity to investigate how much of the call’s acoustic structure is determined by the referent it refers to and how much is the related to the caller’s emotional state. In turn, on the receiver end, the integration of information concerning the context or stimuli and the caller’s emotional response provides a rich informational source to inform subsequent behaviour. I will be using meerkat alarm calls to explore how emotional encoding is integrated with referential information by callers in animal vocalisations and how this is perceived and acted upon by receivers. Meerkat alarm calls vary both with referent (aerial, terrestrial, recruitment) and urgency (from low to high). I will investigate how referent vs. urgency is encoded and how individual arousal specifically affects alarm call acoustic structure. I will then explore how receiver behavioural and physiological responses vary dependent on alarm call arousal.

Zurich Cognition Group - Affiliated group members

vladThe dynamics of vocal coordination in social mammals

Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior, Department for the Ecology of Animal Societies, Konstanz, Germany

Contact: demartsev@gmail.com

I am interested in acoustic communication patterns in mammals focusing mainly on conversation like “turn-taking” in social species. Many animal species and also humans, take rapidly alternating turns while engaging in a conversation. Communicational turn-taking in humans appears very early in infancy, before the appearance of coherent words. It is not unlikely that the basic conversational rules, as well as mechanisms for maintaining them during an interaction, are shared between humans and animals.

The meerkat research system provides a unique opportunity for investigating continuous vocal exchange interactions between identified individuals. I am focusing on calls that are given at non conflict situations and in which the turn taking patterns are less likely to become masked by the participants’ high arousal. This project has the potential of revealing the fine tuning of subtle vocal interactions. In addition, as the principles behind conversational rules are not concerned with “meaning”, they are likely precede complex syntax and phonology systems of language. The parallel between animal cooperative vocal interactions and human conversation on the level of coordination and speaker exchange monitoring, is intriguing.

arianaCommunication and collective movement in meerkats


Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior, Department for the Ecology of Animal Societies, Konstanz, Germany

Contact: arianasp@gmail.com

From fish schools to bird flocks, many animals move together in groups. Recent research has shown that complex and coordinated movement patterns can emerge if individuals follow surprisingly simple rules – for example being attracted to and aligning with nearby group members. However, for many animal species, particularly those that live in stable social groups, the decisions individuals make may also be shaped by the long-term social relationships between individuals, and by the communication strategies they employ. I am interested in how both acoustic communication and social relationships affect the movement decisions of individuals and the resulting movement dynamics of entire groups. I am using meerkats as a model system to explore this question.

Meerkat groups remain together as they forage over large distances, using vocalizations to help coordinate movement. Using small tags that combine GPS and audio, I plan to collect data on the fine-scale movements and vocalizations of all individuals within meerkat groups as they forage together. I am interested in determining what rules govern where individuals move, including how meerkats’ vocalizations allow them to coordinate movement, and whether certain individuals have disproportionate influence over where the group goes. At a larger scale, I am also interested in determining what factors drive the movement decisions of entire groups, including habitat features, food distribution, predators, inter-group interactions,and memory.

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