Doctoral Dissertation Research: Diet, Cognition, And Nutrient Cycling In Wild Orangutan Habitats


Primate cognitive evolution is thought to have been shaped, in part, by the need to navigate complex and variable environments in order to find food. However, the relationship between ecological variability and cognitive complexity is not fully understood for living primates. This doctoral dissertation project will use innovative and interdisciplinary methods to study the travel paths of Bornean orangutans through their environment, in order to understand how these primates fulfill specific nutritional targets and navigate their environment using prior information to reach those targets. A better understanding of what one of our closest living relatives knows about their resources, and how they utilize this information to make foraging decisions, provides a unique opportunity for deepening our understanding of the origins and evolution of complex cognition in our own species. This research will also support academic training and mentorship for students under-represented in STEM fields, foster international collaboration and scientific capacity building at the field location, and contribute to local conservation initiatives by providing a method to predict how, why and when orangutans will move through different parts of their habitat. There is increasing interest in the study of primate spatial cognition by analyzing travel paths of animals through their environment. Researchers tend to examine travel decisions through the lens of classical foraging theory, but the observed spatial behavior of animals rarely reflects the expectations set by foraging models. This may be because interpretations of foraging and travel decisions typically focus on calories, when in fact foragers may also have specific nutritional targets and navigate using prior information to reach those targets. This project will examine how spatial cognition facilitates nutritional balancing in primates by studying Bornean orangutans. Orangutans are an ideal model system because they live in highly variable environments, do not live in social groups, and thus make independent travel and foraging decisions. Most prior studies addressing spatial memory and diet have lacked the ecological correlates of cognition, or have struggled to quantify cognitive foraging in the wild. In this project, data on food distribution, availability, and nutrition will be quantified using a combination of manual sampling and modern remote sensing techniques. Data on ranging and foraging will be collected via focal observations in which dietary and GPS data will be collected at two minute intervals. Urine samples will be collected opportunistically to monitor nutritional and energetic status. These data will be analyzed by integrating a set of novel spatially explicit statistical techniques from movement ecology with the nutritional geometric framework from nutritional ecology.
Effective start/end date7/15/1610/31/17


  • National Science Foundation (NSF)


nutrient cycling
spatial cognition
capacity building
remote sensing