UCL Anthropology


@Jutta Hof


Primate Socioecology and Conservation

Primate Socioecology and Conservation

Darwinian theory is a powerful tool that allows us to understand the evolution of primate societies. Like all animals, primates are faced with the problems of how to survive, breed and rear offspring. However, primate behaviour is particularly complex. Consequently, the research programmes coordinated by Volker Sommer and Alecia Carter ask how primates organise their social and reproductive strategies to adapt to specific environmental conditions and how these challenges are reflected in their cognitive abilities. Largely based on field studies of monkeys and apes in Asia and Africa, this approach also aims to create awareness for the plight of our closest living relatives, as their existence on this planet is increasingly endangered by human activity. Field research is therefore not only understood as an academic exercise, but includes collaboration with governments, NGOs and local communities to conserve primate habitats.

Volker Sommer's research has wider practical and philosophical implications. It has strengthened interpretations of human existence that are fundamentally informed by the concept of gradualism. Thus, Sommer’s research led him to conclude that our closest living relatives, the other great apes (orangutans, gorillas, chimpanzees and bonobos) should be regarded as persons and granted the fundamental rights to life and freedom. As such, he lobbies to change laws in various European countries, to improve the conditions of apes kept in captivity and to protect their natural environment (Great Ape Project). Sommer’s research also disarms heterosexist prejudices in that it demonstrated the widespread occurrence of same-sex sexual and transgendered behaviour amongst non-human animals, especially non-human primates. Consequently, Sommer has been an outspoken critic of the traditional politically and religiously conservative argument that a gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered orientation is “against nature”. Sommer’s research is often cited when changes of legislation are discussed that aim to improve the rights of the LGBT community. Sommer’s philosophy of “radical idealism” continues a tradition of the Enlightenment that is at the heart of UCL’s original mission. It is therefore fitting that Sommer is a founding member of the scientific board of the Giordano-Bruno Foundation for Evolutionary Humanism. This German-based think-tank – broadly comparable to the British Humanist Association – promotes a scientific and secular worldview that strives to enable ethical and fulfilling lives on the basis of reason and humanity.

Alecia Carter is a co-director of the Tsaobis Baboon Project in Namibia. Her current research aims to understand key mechanisms in the evolution of culture by quantifying traits that predict individuals’ use of social information. Carter uses a combination of observational, experimental, and comparative approaches to address this aim. In addition to studying the spread of cultural behaviours in baboons, Carter is currently collaborating with a philosopher to search for novel evidence of self-awareness in socially-aware species. Alecia Carter is likewise involved in promoting equality and collegiality in academia. Together with colleagues, she created and now manages a website to collate and curate research on diversity in academia. The site provides a number of evidence-based, actionable recommendations, in addition to more general advice, to encourage more equal participation of women during academic events.

Selected Publications

  • Bryson, K; C Soligo & V Sommer (2018). Ambiguity tolerance towards non-binary sexuality concepts: Evidence from British newspapers. Journal of Bisexuality 18: 446–477
  • Carter, AJ; English, S & Clutton-Brock, TH. 2014. Cooperative personalities and social niche specialization in female meerkats. Journal of Evolutionary Biology 27, 815-825
  • Carter, AJ; Marshall, HH; Heinsohn, R & Cowlishaw, G. 2014. Personality predicts the propensity for social learning in a wild primate. PeerJ 2, e283
  • Carter, AJ; Marshall, HH; Lee, AEG, Torrents Ticó, M & Cowlishaw, G. 2015. Phenotypic assortment in wild primate networks: implications for the dissemination of information. Royal Society Open Science dx.doi.org/10.1098/rsos.140444
  • Carter, AJ; Torrents Ticó, M & Cowlishaw, G. 2016. Sequential phenotypic constraints on social information use in wild baboons. eLife dx.doi.org/10.7554/eLife.13125
  • Castles, M; Heinsohn, R; Marshall, HH; Lee, AEG; Cowlishaw, G & Carter, AJ. 2014. Social networks created with different techniques are not comparable. Animal Behaviour 96, 59-67
  • Goldstone, LG; V Sommer, N Nurmi, C Stephens & B Fruth 2016. Food begging in wild bonobos (Pan paniscus): assessing relationship quality? Primates 57: 367–376
  • Sommer V, C Ross. eds. 2011. Primates of Gashaka: Socioecology and Conservation in Nigeria's Biodiversity Hotspot. (Series: Developments in Primatology – Progress and Prospects 35) New York: Springer. 534 pp, 93 figs
  • Sommer V, P Vasey (eds). 2006; paperback edition 2011. Homosexual Behaviour in Animals: Evolutionary Perspectives. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 382 pp, 58 figs
  • Pascual-Garrido, A; U Buba, O Allon & V Sommer (2013). Apes finding ants: Predator-prey dynamics in a chimpanzee habitat in Nigeria. American Journal of Primatology 75: 1231–1244
  • Sommer V, U Reichard. 2000. Rethinking monogamy: The gibbon case. Pp 159–168 in: P Kappeler (ed), Primate Males: Causes and Consequences of Variation in Group Composition. Cambridge: Carter, AJ; Croft, AJ; Lukas, D & Sandstrom, G. 2018. Women's visibility in academic seminars: women ask fewer questions than men. PLoS ONE journal.pone.0202743
  • Sommer V. 2008. Schimpansenland. Wildes Leben in Afrika. Munich: C.H. Beck. 251 pp, 8 colour plates
  • Sommer, V & A Lowe 2018. Entry "Biosocial theories of Homosexuality". In: Hilary Callan (ed), The International Encyclopedia of Anthropology (12 vol). Hoboken / NJ: John Wiley & Sons
  • Sommer, V 2016. Menschenaffen als Personen? Das Great Ape Project im Für und Wider. Pp 9–40 in: M Böhnert, M Wunsch, K Köchy (eds): Philosophie der Tierforschung, Bd.2. Freiburg: Karl Alber
  • Sommer, V 2017. Entry "Non-human primate personhood". In: Agustin Fuentes et al. (ed), The International Encyclopedia of Primatology. Hoboken / NJ: John Wiley & Sons
  • Sommer, V, U Buba, G Jesus, A Pascual-Garrido 2016. Sustained myrmecophagy in Nigerian chimpanzees: Preferred or fallback food? American Journal of Physical Anthropology 162: 328–336
  • Sommer, V; A Lowe, G Jesus, N Alberts, Y Bouquet, DM Inglis, M Peterson, E van Riel, J Thompson, C Ross 2016. Antelope predation by Nigerian forest baboons: Ecological and behavioural correlates. Folia Primatologica 87: 67–90
  • Sommer, V; R Minocher & A Lowe 2018. Entry "Infanticide". In: Hilary Callan (ed), The International Encyclopedia of Anthropology (12 vol). Hoboken / NJ: John Wiley & Sons
  • Tranquilli, S; M Abedi-Lartey, .... Y Warren & V Sommer (2014). Protected areas in tropical Africa: Assessing threats and the impact of conservation activities. PLoS ONE 9: e114154, p. 1–21