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Dr. Manuela Ersson-Lembeck




I work on the topic of parent-infant communication, mainly within the first year of life. In detail, I am interested in the following questions: How flexible do mothers and infants communicate in the course of infant development? Which role do facial expressions, gestures and body language play during interactions? How is emotional communication applied? Which similarities and differences are found between human and non-human primates? In order to answer these questions, behavioral observations embedded in natural contexts are conducted. The aim of the project is not only to gain new insights into the evolutionary basis of human parenting behavior, but also to explore models and methods applied in the discipline of developmental psychology for the first time in a cross-species approach to create a shared basis for further interdisciplinary research. 

Multimodal communication in parent-infant interactions: a cross-species comparison of humans, chimpanzees, bonobos and gibbons

The study aims at the investigation of parent-infant interaction within the first year of the infant’s life. These interactions mainly occur within the context of caring behavior and range from simple feeding duties to developing long-term social relationships in humans, as well as in other primates.

The main emphasis of the study is to examine the development of this social bond between parent and infant, the so-called "attachment", not only established and maintained by close proximity. In humans and non-human primates communication plays a crucial role, whereas primary attachment figure and infant need to learn how to exchange visual, tactile and vocal signals and interpret them correctly. E.g. the infant’s smile usually expresses contentment, whereas crying is a signal of distress. With increasing age of the infant a fine tuned communication system is established, providing a secure basis for the interaction with others. Moreover, it is assumed that early life experiences in parent-infant interaction promote the infant’s regulation of emotions, triggering development of signal use in social life.

This project will contribute to a better understanding of evolutionary roots of communication and emotion expression, using a cross-species approach to examine which communicative signals are shared by apes and humans and which might be unique to humans.


Liebal, K., Schneider, C. & Ersson-Lembeck, M. (2018). How primates acquire their gestures: evaluating current theories and evidence. Animal Cognition, 1-14. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10071-018-1187-x

Lembeck, M. (2016). Parenting behaviour in the first year of life: A cross-species comparison of humans, chimpanzees, bonobos and gibbons. Dissertation, FU Berlin.

Waller, B.M., Lembeck, M., Kuchenbuch, P., Burrows, A.M., & Liebal, K. (2012). GibbonFACS: A muscle-based facial movement coding system for the monogamous small apes. International Journal of Primatology, 33(4), 809-821

Lembeck, M., Franz, C. (2008). Differential parental investment and behavioural development in gibbons: Comparison between Siamang (Symphalangus syndactylus) and Lar gibbon (Hylobates lar). Mammalian Biology 73, Supplement 1: 23 (Abstract only)