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Prof. Dr. Mag. Thomas Bugnyar

FWF - START: “Raven politics

ESF - COCOR: “Affiliate relations and cooperation in ravens”

EU - INCORE: “Cooperation and economic behaviour in corvids”

Opens window for sending emailthomas.bugnyar@univie.ac.at



This is me in a nutshell:

I studied biology at the University of Vienna (1989-1995), conducting my diploma thesis on social learning in common marmosets and golden lion tamarins at the Dept. of Theoretical Biology (supervisor Prof. R. Riedl). My doctoral thesis focused on social foraging in ravens (supervisor Prof. K. Kotrschal) and was carried out at the Konrad Lorenz Forschungsstelle, a field station of the University of Vienna (1996-2001).

During my PhD, I was employed in the FWF-project  ‘Social conditions and constraints of social learning’. Thereafter, I received a visiting scholarship to the Konrad Lorenz Institute for Evolution and Cognition Research in Altenberg (March-September 2001). An Erwin Schrödinger fellowship (FWF J2064, J2225) enabled me to conduct my project on ‘Tactical deception in ravens’ together with Prof. B. Heinrich at the Dept. of Biology, University of Vermont, USA (October 2001-2003). I subsequently was awarded with an Erwin Schrödinger follow-up program (‘Social knowledge in ravens’, FWF: R31-B03), offering me to build up a new raven colony and continue my studies in Austria (December 2003-2006). After a year as lecturer at the School of Psychology, University of St. Andrews, Scotland, UK (2007), I am back in Austria again to conduct my new projects on ‘Raven politics’ (FWF: START Y-366-B17) and ‘Cooperation in corvids’ (ESF: COCOR I-105-G11) and to coordinate the EU networking program INCORE (FP6, NEST).

Since 2004, I have been a teaching fellow at the University of Vienna, lecturing the course ‘Animal social cognition’ and participating in lab and field courses on various aspects of behavioural biology and cognitive science.       


Being interested in the evolution of mind, my research focuses on social behaviour and cognitive abilities of non-human animals. I adopt an interdisciplinary approach, theoretically by integrating concepts from behavioural biology, psychology and primatology/anthropology and practically by combining observational studies with physiological measures and controlled experiments under lab and field conditions. The broad questions are (i) which abilities do individuals require to solve problems in daily life with others, (ii) what types of mental representation underlie these abilities and (iii) how are skills acquired and transmitted. The goal of my research is thus to investigate social complexity as a driving force for mental evolution, with emphasis on the possibility of a convergent evolution of cognitive traits in phylogenetically distant but socio-ecologically similar species.

Summary of my past and current work

Starting with studies on social learning in primates, I have soon shifted my attention to the birds of the family Corvidae, notably ravens Corvus corax, that are renown for their large brains. In the course of my PhD, I explored the foraging behaviour of wild ravens in the Austrian Alps, confirming the recruitment system through food calls described by Heinrich and emphasizing the cognitively interesting pattern of flexibly using others as a source of knowledge and as means to gain access to food. Specifically, competition over food caches provokes sophisticated manoeuvres that qualify as tactical deception, both on side of the food storers (that protect their caches from being pilfered) and on side of potential pilferers (that outwit others for gaining access to caches). In the following years, I have been working with captive ravens at the University of Vermont (Erwin Schrödinger fellow) and at the University of Vienna (Erwin Schrödinger follow-up program fellow) to investigate the cognitive mechanism underlying these manoeuvres. Through systematic experimental manipulation of the view of birds at caching, I have tested for the possibility of understanding mental states, i.e. taking the other’s perspective at caching and attributing knowledge to competitors that have and have not seen the caches being made. In addition, I have addressed the ravens’ responsiveness to others’ visual behaviour outside the caching context, expanding on the paradigms of gaze following and joint visual attention. Results show that ravens are indeed capable of judging others’ visual perception, and thus show a level of understanding roughly comparable to that of 2-years-old children.

My current research focuses on avian social knowledge and its application in dynamic societies (i.e. using others as social tools for cooperation, competition and learning). Utilizing ravens as main model system, I am involved in the START program of the Austrian Science Fund (FWF) and the international projects COCOR (ESF-EUROCORES framework TECT) and INCORE (FP6-NEST).

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