The evolution of social intelligence:

Using playback experiments on African elephants we demonstrated that the possession of enhanced discriminatory abilities by the oldest individual in a group of advanced social mammals can influence the social knowledge of the group as a whole, and result in higher per capita reproductive success for female groups led by older individuals. This was the first study to examine directly how wild animals acquire and store information about their social companions and what the biological fitness benefits of enhanced social knowledge might be, with relevance for evolutionary biology and conservation as well as psychology. Detailed in McComb et al., 2001 (see also McComb et al., 2000, McComb et al., 2003).

Age and Leadership

Our work on matriarch age and knowledge of lion predators provided the first empirical evidence that individuals within a social group may derive significant benefits from the influence of an older leader because of their enhanced ability to make crucial decisions about predatory threat and was published in Proceedings of the Royal Society series B (McComb et al. 2011).

While elephant groups consistently adjust their defensive behaviour to the greater threat of three roaring lions versus one, families with younger matriarchs typically under-react to roars from male lions despite the severe danger they represent. Sensitivity to this key threat increases with matriarch age and is greatest for the oldest matriarchs, who are likely to have accumulated the most experience. The study generated important insights into selection for longevity and the evolution of a sophisticated social structure that supports the co-ordinating role of a single older leader (see BBC coverage of our paper).

The effects of social trauma on cognitive abilities

We have work in prep comparing the cognitive abilities of elephants in our natural study population in Amboseli National Park, Kenya with those in a contrasting artificial population in Pilanesberg National Park, South Africa. The Pilanesberg population was founded with orphan elephants translocated after culling operations in the Kruger National Park during the early 1980’s. Social knowledge was compared across these populations using unique playback experiments that tested the ability of elephant groups to process information on social identity and age-related dominance. A parallel study explored the effects of social disruption on the abilities of elephants to process ecological knowledge, contrasting the behavioural responses of groups in Amboseli and Pilanesberg to playbacks of lion roars that represented different levels of threat - 1 versus 3 lions roaring and male versus female lion roars.

Knowledge of predatory threat associated with different human cultural groups

Our most recent research uses playback to investigate abilities to discriminate between the voices of Maasai and Kamba ethnic groups that typically represent different levels of threat to the Amboseli elephants.


School of Psychology