Friederike Range

Domestication Lab, Dept. of Interdisciplinary Life Sciences, Konrad Lorenz Institute of Ethology, University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna

1. Socio-ecological cognition: Rules of thumb in free-ranging dogs

Socioecological hypotheses are usually highly complex and multivariate, and predictions highly sensitive to sometimes small changes. Hence animals may use simple rules of thumb rather than sophisticated computations to optimize their behavior under the current socioecological conditions, and such simple rules may often provide good approximations but also result in implemented socio-ecologies that deviate from those theoretically predicted. Our project will focus on the social-tolerance-tradeoff where dominants must balance their high-gain resource monopolization potential against concessions towards subordinates which may otherwise cease support during collective resource defense against outgroup competitors (Sterck et al. 1997). Social tolerance should increase with interdependency for collective resource defense, and be promoted by relatedness (Lukas et al. 2018). However, between-group competition is difficult to estimate, and animals may therefore just bookkeep the general rate of collective defense activity as an approximation (as also researchers often do). Moreover, in particular paternal kin recognition may often be best achieved using familiarity or phenotype similarity as a proxy (Widdig 2007).

Here we will investigate these mechanisms on our established free-ranging dog field site in a coastal tourist area in Morocco by collecting DNA-samples and comprehensive behavioral data. We will particularly utilize the strong tourist seasonality at the field site, resulting in low between group competition and frequent opportunity for pseudo-defense interactions during the peak season, and vice versa during the low season. This project will be co-supervised by Andreas Berghänel and benefit through collaboration with Thomas Bugnyar (DK Faculty).


Lukas, D. & Clutton-Brock, T. 2018. Social complexity and kinship in animal societies. Ecol. Lett., 21, 1129- 1134.

Sterck, E. H. M., Watts, D. P. & van Schaik, C. P. 1997. The evolution of female social relationships in nonhuman primates. Behav. Ecol. Sociobiol., 41, 291-309.

Widdig, A. 2007. Paternal kin discrimination: The evidence and likely mechanisms. Biol. Rev., 82, 319-334.

2. Proximate mechanisms underlying problem solving abilities

Problem solving abilities are thought to be shaped by natural selection as a response to the species-specific challenges of their social-ecological environment (Byrne, 1997). Considering the weight of phylogeny in accounting for potential similarities between species, the most common approach to evaluate this is by comparing closely related species that differ in key traits thought to be evolutionarily relevant, e.g. their social structure and/or feeding ecology. Wolves and dogs, although closely related to each other, vary significantly in several factors of their social and ecological environments (see Marshall-Pescini et al., 2017 for a review). They also show marked differences in their problem-solving abilities, with wolves often outperforming dogs. However, it is unclear whether this difference comes from their cognitive abilities (e.g. learning and inferential reasoning), motivation (e.g. persistence and neophobia) or general-purpose mechanisms (e.g. attention, working memory) and which selective pressures have shaped them. Within the framework of the larger project, the PhD student we will start to investigate the general-purpose mechanisms. Selective attention i.e. the ability to focus on relevant information while inhibiting signals from irrelevant stimuli (Olsen, 2018), working memory capacity (WMC) and inhibitory control are thought to be crucial in solving problem-solving tasks. Here we will use several different tasks to measure attentional control and working memory, visual attention and inhibition.

This project and thus the supervision of the PhD student will be conducted together with Sarah Marshall-Pescini who focuses her research on the influence of the social ecology on the cognitive abilities of dogs and wolves and Sabine Tebbich (DK Faculty member), whose expertise lies in physical cognition in various animal species.


Byrne, R.W., 1997. The technical intelligence hypothesis: an additional evolutionary stimulus to intelligence?, in: Whiten, A., Byrne, R.W. (Eds.), Machiavellian intelligence II: extensions and evaluations Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp. 289-211.

Marshall-Pescini, S., Cafazzo, S., Virányi, Z., Range, F., 2017. Integrating social ecology in explanations of wolf-dog behavioral differences. Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences, 80-86.

Olsen, M.R., 2018. A case for methodological overhaul and increased study of executive function in the domestic dog (Canis lupus familiaris). Animal cognition 21, 175-195.