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Psychology professor publishes paper on primate behavior

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

MEDIA CONTACT: Hilary Dickinson at dickinsonh@beloit.edu or 608-363-2849 

From a young age, Associate Professor of Psychology Kristin Bonnie knew what she wanted to be when she grew up.

“Animal behavior has always been my first love,” she said. Specifically, Bonnie has a strong interest in primate cognition and behavior.

Bonnie had her first brush with primate research as an undergraduate studying abroad in Kenya. She spent nearly a month observing wild baboons for an independent research project, taking photographs, recording travel patterns and identifying individuals.

After graduating from St. Lawrence University, Bonnie spent two years as a research assistant in an animal behavior lab. She then earned her Ph.D. in psychology at Emory University in Georgia. There, she worked under renowned primatologist Frans de Waal, studying learning and cognition in Capuchin monkeys and chimpanzees. 

When she’s not teaching, Bonnie is researching at the Lincoln Park Zoo. Her latest project explores how chimpanzees learn about variability in food resources in the environment. In the experiment, Bonnie and colleagues rotated which holes in a man-made termite mound had food, and observed how chimpanzees dealt with that unpredictability. What they found was surprising.

“They’ll continue to use a behavior or strategy that hasn’t worked in weeks, and didn’t work earlier today, and they’ll keep trying it,” she said. “And that we didn’t expect.”

These findings bring up further questions of how social dynamics can affect the development of new behaviors and solutions to problems. Bonnie is the primary author of the paper reporting these findings titled, “Flexibility and persistence of chimpanzee foraging behavior in a captive environment.” It was recently accepted by the American Journal of Primatology and is currently in press.

Source: Kristin Bonnie joined the psychology department at Beloit College in August 2007. An experimental/biological psychologist, her courses cover topics including the biological and evolutionary basis of behavior and research methods and design. Bonnie’s research focuses on learning and cognition in animals. She has published numerous papers on social learning among non-human primates. Bonnie can serve as a media resource on topics related to her research and teaching interests.