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Dr. Kathrin Susanne Kopp

Prosocial behavior in orang-utans

My main research topic concerns cross-species comparison of prosocial behaviour in great apes with a special focus on prosociality in orangutans. I am interested in both similarities and species-specific differences regarding the form, functions and influential factors of prosocial behaviours, e.g. of food sharing or helping, and of the socio-cognitive and emotional processes underlying these behaviours. A central question of my research addresses the role that prosocial behaviour might play for establishing, maintaining and developing social bonds and vice versa. The data for my studies usually stem from systematic observations of ape groups in several zoological gardens.

Prosociality - the faculty to act in favour of other beings - is highly developed in humans across cultures. Spontaneous helping or cooperative acting to achieve a common goal are types of prosocial behaviour that are often considered to be uniquely human. However, human behaviour is not only a result of culture and cultural evolution, but also of biological evolution. Therefore it is necessary to look for the evolutionary roots of this special faculty and, following the ethological paradigm, for prosocial behaviour in our next living kin – the great apes. To date, research on great apes has mostly focused on chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) and has provided evidence for several types of prosocial behaviour including food sharing, cooperative hunting, or post-conflict consolation and reconciliation. In contrast, only little is known about prosociality in orangutans (Pongo spp.). Orangutans have – unlike group-living chimpanzees – a semi-solitary lifestyle and, therefore, comparably seldom social contacts in their natural habitat. Nevertheless, in captivity they can cope with living in groups quite well. Within my PhD-project I am observing orangutans in several zoological gardens to provide the first systematic description and analysis of the prosocial behavioural repertoire of group-living orangutans. Finally, the result shall constitute a further building block for reconstructing the evolution of prosociality.


Kopp, K. S., & Liebal, K. (2016). Here you are!—Selective and active food sharing within and between groups in captive Sumatran orangutans (Pongo abelii). Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, 70(8), 1219-1233. doi:10.1007/s00265-016-2130-2

Kopp, K. S. (2017). Prosocial Behaviour in Captive Sumatran Orangutans (Pongo abelii). (Doctoral Thesis), Freie Universität Berlin. ID: FUDISS_thesis_000000104317