UCL Anthropology

Dr Alexander Piel

Dr Alexander Piel

Lecturer in Evolutionary Anthropology

Dept of Anthropology

Faculty of S&HS

Joined UCL
1st Jul 2020

Research summary

My current research centres on behavioural adaptations of eastern chimpanzees, red-tailed monkeys, and yellow baboons to a savanna-woodland, considered marginal for an otherwise forest-dwelling great ape. Specifically, I am interested in the consequences to social organisation of living at dramatically low population densities and simultaneously exhibiting large home ranges and the implications for hominid evolution. For example, does territoriality break down when home ranges are vast, e.g. 100km2? Does communication take on a more important role to minimize long-distance travel? Questions about diet are also central to my research. What proportion of the annual diet comes from woodland, versus forest food sources? what are fallback strategies when food is scarce? I have recently published on chimpanzee communication, party size, diet and food quality and current work investigates fallback food strategies, party size, and home range. I have recently expanded my research interests to primate community ecology and how inter-specific competition for scarce resources promote unique adaptations to a dry habitat.

Since 2010 I have also spent much of my time in Tanzania working in chimpanzee conservation, coordinating surveys to identify priority areas for chimpanzees and using remote sensing technology (camera traps, acoustic recorders, drones) to help rapidly assess biodiversity, habitat integrity, and chimpanzee abundance. Together, this work helps us understand not just our own evolutionary past, but also our closest living relatives, and hopefully protect their future in Tanzania.

Teaching summary

I teach on both undergraduate and post-graduate (Human Evolution and Behaviour Msc) courses. Currently, I teach primatology on ANT0008 as well as some of the practicals on ANT0007. I will also contribute to ANT0060 and in time, hope to introduce new courses on primate communication and primate conservation. 


I am a biological anthropologist with a 4-field background in Anthropology. I have a BA in Animal Behaviour from Bucknell University (2001), an MA in Anthropology from Iowa State University (2003) and received my PhD from the University of California, San Diego in 2014. 

I have conducted fieldwork in Madagascar, Kenya, Senegal and since 2005, have studied chimpanzees in the Issa Valley, western Tanzania. In 2008, with Fiona Stewart, I initiated the Greater Mahale Ecosystem Research and Conservation Project (GMERC), where we study chimpanzee, red-tailed monkey and yellow baboon behaviour, ecology, and conservation. Our primary research interests lie in the adaptations to living in a dry, mosaic habitat and the implications for our reconstructions on hominid evolution. For more on this research and the project, please see www.gmerc.org.