PhD Research Project: Promoting wildtype behavioural ecology in sanctuary great apes to aid reintroduction programmes

University of Birmingham

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United Kingdom

Position type:

Full time

21 Nov 2016
23 Jan 2017

Full details:

Reference number: BIR-69177


Great apes are important resident species in tropical forests, having a key role in maintaining humid-forest biodiversity and forest regeneration processes through actions such as seed dispersal and dislodging of dead trees and branches. As Flagship species they also have an inherent value as an essential natural resource from which humans derive considerable biological, economic and societal benefit. Nevertheless, great apes are widely predicted to be extinct across most of their natural range within a generation – creating an ever increasing need for action.

Great ape sanctuaries hold animals that are likely to be reintroduced back into wild habitats. Forest canopies are highly mechanically complex; consisting of a 3-dimensional array of weight-bearing supports that are flexible, irregular and discontinuous, but captive enclosures tend to be much more homogenous and predictable. Preparing apes for reintroduction is thus a complex and challenging process. To do this, they need to be equipped with targeted techniques to understand the skills/behaviours that individual apes are not expressing appropriately, and methods to elicit these core behaviours.

We have created an Enclosure Design Tool (EDT) to elicit wild-type behaviours in zoo apes based on replicating the mechanical behaviour of tropical forest and the physical and mental challenges it poses for wild apes. Our aim now is to develop EDTs for chimpanzee, gorilla and orangutan sanctuaries/ rehabilitation centres in range countries. We have built a wide network of sanctuaries and other organisations to achieve this goal.

A core problem is that the musculo-skeletal system and the brain both respond to the demands placed upon them during development. Strength and cognitive skills are built cumulatively, with key stages for both occurring during pre-adult years and a significant decrease in the ability to build strength/ new skills in adulthood. This studentship will therefore provide a research-base on the capacity of one or more of the great apes (chimpanzees, gorilla, orangutans) to learn and carry our natural behaviours across the life course. This will allow us to extend the EDT to all sanctuary apes and enhance the success of great ape conservation and reintroduction programmes.

1) Literature review of the behavioural ecology of the chosen ape/s species. This will include locomotor ecology, 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 and/or captive apes to fill knowledge gaps.
3) Quantify how the behaviour of sanctuary apes differs from wild conspecifics across the life course. Building on observational protocols, this will build a unique, integrated dataset that will be compared to the behavioural diversity and activity budgets of the wild individuals.
4) Use data from 1-3 to implement functional enclosure modifications appropriate for each species.
5) Compare behaviour pre- and post-enclosure modification to evaluate success in modifying behaviour, and develop EDTs specific to sanctuary apes.

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 under field conditions as this PhD is likely to include extensive field work. Some experience of ‘R’ would also be useful as this is the programme in which the EDT operates.

For further information please contact:

Dr Susannah Thorpe
School of Biosciences
University of Birmingham
+44 (0)121 414 5040


Funding Notes

In addition to completing an online application form, you will also need to complete and submit the CENTA studentship application form available from

Financial support
CENTA studentships are for 3.5 years and are funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC). In addition to the full payment of their tuition fees, successful candidates will receive the following financial support.

Annual stipend, set at £14,057 for 2015/16
Research training support grant (RTSG) of £8,000


van Casteren, A., Sellers, W. I., Thorpe, S. K. S., Coward, S., Crompton, R. H. & Ennos, A. R. (2012) Nest Building Orangutans Demonstrate Engineering Know-How to Produce Safe, Comfortable Beds. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 109, 6873-6877

Tecwyn, E. C., Thorpe, S. K., & Chappell, J. (2013). A novel test of planning ability: Great apes can plan step-by-step but not in advance of action. Behavioural Processes 100, 174–184.

Thorpe, S. K. S., & Crompton, R. H. (2005). Locomotor ecology of wild orang-utans (Pongo pygmaeus abelii) in the Gunung Leuser ecosystem, Sumatra, Indonesia: A multivariate analysis using log-linear modelling. American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 127, 58–78.

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How to apply

Please go to the University Website and search for the keywords: Promoting wildtype behavioural ecology in sanctuary great apes to aid reintroduction programmes