The focus of research in this unit is on current questions of cognition and emotions of animals from a comparative and integrative point of view. Cognitive abilities are not unique characteristics of humans but occur in many animals. To understand the various processes, their functions in the animals' lives, their evolutionary developing and their problem-solving competence, we don't restrict ourselves to a few model systems but examine different species, among others dogs and wolves, keas, pigeons, woodpeckers and even turtles. As we consider cognition as a complex biological phenomenon, we combine different biological and psychological methods and approaches and integrate studies on different levels of complexity (genetic, neuronal, individual, social, cultural level). We stand in the tradition of classical ethology and aim to integrate the four questions of Tinbergen in order to completely understand the animal and its cognitive and emotional possibilities and limits. For this purpose, we combine studies in natural and semi-natural environments. We examine animals when they solve experimental problems which are all orientated on the species’ natural problems. A non-invasive approach is essential.
Animal welfare and human-animal interactions
A better understanding of cognitive and emotional abilities of animals, especially in a social context, does directly affect some bioethical and applied questions. Therefore, we will also spotlight farm animals (pigs, chicken…) and lab animals (rats, monkeys) beside wild animals (keas, woodpeckers) and pets (dogs). The results of our (basic) research – in cooperation with other units at the Messerli Research Institute and other institutes at the University of Veterinary Medicine – will contribute to qualify the (often exaggerated) self-conception of humans and their role in the universe, to recognize their own cognitive and social abilities, to strengthen their responsibility and sensitiveness for other social, sensitive and intelligent animals and to improve their manifold relationships to (and their dealing with) animals.