My research interests focus on animal cognition and behaviour. I am fascinated by how animals learn, individually and socially, and how the acquired information can help them to cope with the challenges of everyday life. In particular, I am interested in cognitive flexibility and executive function. Recently my research focus has broadened towards cognitive ecology including questions such as how sociality influences learning ability, how parental care affects offspring behavioural and cognitive phenotype, how the sexes learn in different context and how a species ecology shapes its cognitive ability. I am most excited about the comparative approach to find out how species differ in their cognition and how cognitive abilities have evolved in different taxa. In this context I am very interested in individual differences and how these might reflect necessary variation to cope with different challenges that might arise within an individuals lifetime but also across generations. I am also interested in how we can use both behaviour and cognitive ability to develop and improve animal welfare and conservation measures.
Journey - From Austria to Australia
I started my scientific education at the Karl Franzens University in Graz, Styria (Austria) where I received my Bachelor degree in Ethology. My undergraduate research focused on thermoregulation in ants analysing temperature gradients of anthills and ant trails. During my undergraduate degree, I had the opportunity to work with many different species including honey bees, Japanese macaques and electric fish among others.
My interests in behaviour and cognition lead me to leave Graz behind and move to Vienna, where I finished my Master degree in 2013 studying cognition in Goffin's cockatoos. Originally I wanted to study bioacoustics and acoustical communication in frogs, however, somehow I ended up studying cognition instead.
My first study looked into Piagetian object permanence utilising Piagets original six stage methodology. With a magnetic plate, we hid a piece of cashew under one of three cups. In later stages these cups changed position, which made paying attention crucial to finding the reward.
My masters-thesis focused on the influence of the social relationship between an observer and a demonstrator during a none food-rewarded object choice task. Subjects watched a demonstrator choose one of four objects. Afterwards, without the demonstrator present, the subject was allowed to choose one object itself.
Attention in animal has been a theme during my Master research. Between 2016 to 2019 I did my PhD at Macquarie University in Sydney, NSW; Australia. My research shifted a little bit focusing on behavioural flexibility and learning in lizards of the Egernia group, a group of species with different degrees of sociality. Attention plays an important role during tests of behavioural flexibility, especially during reversal learning and set-shifting, two methods I used to test these lizards learning ability. During my 3.5 years at Macquarie University I also studied response inhibition and spontaneous quantity discrimination in lizards.
Recently, my research has increasingly focused on how ecology and life history shape learning. However, I am very interested in broadening my skills even further. I want to incorporate more behaviour, ecology and morpholgy and physiology into my research to better understand differences in cognitive ability between individuals as well as between species.
Onward to Switzerland!
After graduating from Macquarie University in September 2019, I have started my first Postdoc at the University of Bern in Switzerland under the guidance of Dr. Eva Ringler. We will explore the cognitive abilities of amphibians including poison frogs. My main focus will be on studying the link between behaviour, cognition and parental care in Tokay geckos (Gekko gecko). We will look at laterality, coping style, parental care behaviour and cognition (individual and social learning, quantity discrimination, inhibitory control, spatial memory) and how these change depending on the early social environment, development and within and across years.
We have already started our captive population with 22 adult, male and female geckos. Soon they will move into the newly updated "Gecko" house at the Ethological Research Station "Hasli" in Bern. We are also very happy to say that we already have our first study lined up on laterality which will be conducted by a Master student in summer 2021.