I focus on the interplay of evolution, cognition and sociality in animals. Specifically I examine how complex social systems in cetaceans, primates and other vertebrates drive the evolution of complex learning and memory skills. Animals with fluid, complex social dynamics have a greater need to remember many social partners over unpredictable lengths of time. Therefore animals with complex social systems like humans, dolphins, chimps, elephants, corvids and some parrots for example should display something called long-term social recognition, which allows them to remember many social partners, sometimes for life. We then test species with simpler social dynamics on conspecific recognition tests to see if they have more limited social cognition. Overall, social memory, may prove to be a key to the evolution of generalized cognitive skills like puzzle solving, tool use and even language-like communication.
My Ph.D. work with dolphins identified the first example of life-long social recognition in a non-human animal. Dolphins can remember the signature whistles (individualized acoustic labels) of former tank-mates even after 20.5 years of separation. To date, only humans and dolphins have been systematically shown to have this type of memory, but other socially complex species are likely to follow.
In addition to social memory I also focus on questions related to communication and signal meaning in non-human species and my current research interests revolve around the representational nature of signature whistles. When a person hears the name of someone they know, often he or she pictures that individual in their mind. Can we find some evidence for such representational understanding in dolphins?