Ontogeny and cognitive evolution in cockatoos

Supervisor: Dr Lucy Aplin, Max Planck Institute of Animal Behaviour 

December 22, 2021

We are seeking a doctoral student with a background in behavioural ecology and/or animal cognition to join our team studying cognitive and cultural ecology in birds. The researcher will be based at the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior and the University of Konstanz, and at the Australian National University, and will receive a joint doctoral degree from both universities.

Research: Slow life histories and long juvenile periods are a common pattern across taxa exhibiting the evolution of flexible cognition (e.g. primates), and often appear have co-evolved with high-quality diets, complex sociality and the capacity for culture. Large parrots share many life history traits with these groups, including a famous longevity andextended juvenile period. Yet while has been a long history of lab studies of cognition on parrots, there is still relatively little research into cognitive ecology of wild parrots, and the drivers of cognitive evolution are still underexplored.

It has been proposed in primates and covids that extended juvenile periods have evolved to allow for the acquisition of complex skills. For example, a delayed age of sexual maturity may allow individuals to build essential spatial and foraging knowledge, to build social skills, and/or facilitate social learning of skills from adults. An investigation of learning and skill development over this period should help elucidate the focus of selection, disentangling relative contributions of ecological, social and cultural factors on cognitive evolution.

This project will use a combination of experiments, direct observations and remote tracking across the juvenile period in wild sulphur-crested cockatoos (Cacatua galertia) to investigate these questions, working in habituated flocks at our field-sites in south-eastern Australia. These field-studies will be combined with a comparative analysis to ask about cognitive evolution in parrots more broadly.



  • MSc or equivalent in behavioural ecology, animal cognition, evolutionary biology or similar, including a six month research component.
  •  A willingness to do international fieldwork, and spend at least one year based at each of the two university host locations.
  • Animal handling and fieldwork experience highly desirable.
  • Knowledge of coding languages, e.g., R and Python, or a willingness to learn
  • Driver’s license is desirable
  • A background or interest in electronics is also desirable, as the work will use Raspberry Pis, Arduinos etc.

Starting date:  March/April 2022 or as soon as possible thereafter.

Funding:  is confirmed for 3.6 years, with extension to 4 years possible.

For more information, see our research group: https://sites.google.com/site/lucymaplin/home; https://www.ab.mpg.de/aplin 

Questions: For further information regarding the position, please feel free to contact Lucy Aplin (laplin@ab.mpg.de)

The University of Konstanz and the Max Planck Society are equal opportunity employers that are committed to providing employment opportunities to all qualified applicants without regard to race, color, religion, age, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, or disability. They seek to increase the number of women in those areas where they are underrepresented and therefore explicitly encourage women to apply  (Equal opportunity). Persons with disabilities are explicitly encouraged to apply. They will be given preference if appropriately qualified (contact +49 7531 88 4016).

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