PROF. KAREN MCCOMB
My research over the years has focused on using naturalistic experiments to provide new insights into communication and cognitive abilities in a wide range of mammals including African elephants, horses, lions, red deer and domestic cats and dogs. African elephants have been a major focus over the last 23 years, the species to which I have returned again and again. With Cynthia and the team at Amboseli, I first used playback experiments to demonstrate that the possession of enhanced discriminatory abilities by the oldest individual in an elephant family group could influence the social knowledge of the group as a whole, providing the first insights into how cognitively advanced social mammals acquire and store information in the wild and highlighting the crucial importance of these oldest females as repositories of social information. Along with Graeme Shannon, I also provided the first empirical evidence that groups benefit from older leaders because of their enhanced ability to make crucial decisions about predatory threat and demonstrated that elephants’ knowledge of human predators was extremely precise – revealing unusual abilities to determine ethnicity, gender and age from acoustic cues in human voices. I am now delighted to be initiating a new project with Dr Lucy Bates, investigating cultural differences between elephant populations across Africa, which will bring me back to Amboseli again. I am based at the University of Sussex, where I am Professor of Animal Behaviour and Cognition.