Personal profile

Research overview

Professor Byrne studies the evolution of cognitive and social behaviour, particularly the origins of distinctively human characteristics. Current projects focus on the gestural communication of the great apes, and on the social cognition of the African elephant. Previous work has included tactical deception in primates and its relationship to brain size and intelligence, welfare-related studies of cognition in the domestic pig, and the analysis of social learning and imitation. " (See for papers.) Postgraduates under his supervision have recently worked on gestural communication in chimpanzees, bonobos and orangutans; elephant social cognition; great ape manual feeding techniques, including the effect of disability on chimpanzee behaviour; and cognitive maps and travel coordination in monkeys and apes. Professor Byrne was awarded the British Psychology Society Book Award 1997 for his O.U.P. monograph "The Thinking Ape

Research interests

My current research interests are in the following areas: 

Social learning : Based on evidence about the abilities of non-human primates, I have developed models of the simple social learning processes that underlie much of the so-called 'imitation' seen in non-human animals, and also of the rather special ability that we and great apes possess, to perceive, understand and build novel, complex behaviour.

Gestural communication in great apes : Consistent with their remarkable abilities in manual plant feeding, and in stark contrast to their very slight abilities in modifying vocal communication, great apes show rather flexible gestural communication. My postdoctoral fellows and postgraduate students have been studying gestures in gorillas, orangutans, chimpanzees and bonobos for a number of years.

Evolution of mental map abilities : Efficient foraging in a large-scale environment requires many of the everyday navigation abilites upon which humans also rely. But how far in advance can a non-human primate plan? Several of my recent PhD students have explored this question, and (in conjunction with Peter Jupp, Dept of Statistics) we have developed a novel program for evaluating travel data for the possibility of routes planned in advance.

Cognition on wild elephants : For obvious practical reasons, study of cognition in elephants has been highly restricted. However, long-term field studies have reported apparently unusual abilities suggesting considerable intelligence. With a postdoctoral research fellow, Lucy Bates, I have collaborated with the Amboseli Elephant Research project, Kenya, in studying the cognition of the Africa elephant.

Cognitive capacities of domestic animals : Animal welfare needs to be underpinned by a proper understanding of the mental abilities of the species concerned. With colleagues at Bristol Veterinary School, I have investigated the social cognition of the domestic pig in two BBSRC funded studies.

Academic/Professional Qualification

Ph.D., University of Cambridge; M.A., University of Cambridge

Expertise related to UN Sustainable Development Goals

In 2015, UN member states agreed to 17 global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure prosperity for all. This person’s work contributes towards the following SDG(s):

  • SDG 3 - Good Health and Well-being
  • SDG 13 - Climate Action


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