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.

vladThe dynamics of vocal coordination in social mammals


Department of Evolutionary and Environmental Biology, University of Zurich, Switzerland

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.

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.

ginaTerritory defence in Meerkats: The influence of group size on investments


Department of Evolutionary Biology and Environmental Studies

University of Zurich


Contact: gina.moergeli@uzh.ch


To see how group size can influence the defensive behaviour, meerkats (Suricata suricatta) provide a unique opportunity. In this species, beside the intensity of scent marking, inspection of scent and the amount and duration of recruitment calls, as well as the change in post-inspectional movement and behavioural patterns are an indication for the degree of investment. In my MSc research I am assessing how group size influences the reaction to intruders.

During a six month period I collect data on natural occuring marking behaviour on dominant and subordinate individuals in different sized groups at the Kalahari Meerkat Project. In addition, I conduct scent mark presentations, comparing the reaction to scent at the periphery against the centre of the territory, and check for the impact of the opponents group composition (groups vs. roving males). Furthermore, I analyse longterm adlib data of the KMP on marking behaviour (location and frequency) and how this relates to group size and other social and ecological factors.

arianaCommunication and collective movement in meerkats


Department of Migration and Immuno-Ecology, Max Planck Institute for Ornithology, Radolfzell, Germany

Department of Evolutionary Biology and Environmental Studies, University of Zurich, Zurich, Switzerland

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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