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Cognitive Bias

Betsy HerrelkoBetsy Herrelko

Elizabeth (Betsy) Herrelko is the David Bohnett Cognitive Research Fellow at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo. As a behavioral scientist and primatologist, Betsy’s research interests combine animal management with how animals think. Her current project on cognitive bias (a measure of emotional state) in apes examines comparisons across and within species in relation to management events, sensory modalities, and stability over time.

For the past few years, as an Honorary Research Associate at the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland and a PhD Student at the University of Stirling (Scotland), Betsy studied the lives of the chimpanzees at Edinburgh Zoo. Her research explored four topics while assessing the development of a cognitive research program and large-scale introductions in zoo-housed chimpanzees: welfare, cognition, public engagement with science, and animal management.

The project's use of touchscreen technology and on-exhibit research was the first of its kind for the UK and was the focus of the BBC Natural World documentary, The Chimpcam Project (2010). Her work on introductions has also been highlighted in the BBC documentary Origins of Us (2011). Prior to moving to the UK, Betsy started her zoo career in the USA. During her undergraduate years she volunteered within the education department at the Bronx Zoo (New York), earned her Master's degree in animal behavior and conservation from Hunter College, CUNY (New York), and worked at the Gorilla Foundation (California) in gorilla care, research, and facility operations.

At Smithsonian’s National Zoo, Betsy will study cognitive bias (a measure of emotional state) in both of the zoo’s great apes species, gorillas and orangutans, as well as with the zoo’s white cheeked gibbons and siamangs.  Since the emotional states of non-verbal beings are challenging to assess, behavioral scientists have adapted techniques from human psychology to assess the mental state of non-human animals. Will animals react faster during an activity when they are in a better mood compared to when they are in a not-so-good mood? How does their mood relate to their daily activities?

This project aims to measure cognitive bias in a novel context (a zoo) with species that have never been tested before (orangutans, gorillas, and gibbons). The strands within the project will focus on assessing differences across and within ape species in relation to animal management events and sensory modalities (visual and auditory) as well as identifying stability over time. Although we expect the results to fall in line with what those who work closely with these animals already know (a frequent occurrence in applied research), we hope that having systematically collected data can help support keeper decisions in a variety of facilities and management situations.