My name is Heidi Lyn. My research focus is nonhuman animal cognition and communication and I have been in this field close to 20 years, working in Hawaii, Scotland, the Netherlands, New York City and now close to the beach on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi. I have worked with marine mammals including dolphins, belugas, walrus and otters as well as primates including chimpanzees, bonobos, and orangutans. In my lab, we are currently expanding our research focus to include less studied animals like reptiles and carrion birds and beginning a large project with dogs at the Humane Society of Southern Mississippi. This last project is currently part of a crowd funding initiative at http://experiment.com/projects/can-cognitive-tests-of-shelter-dogs-improve-their-chances-of-adoption.
Some of the recent publications from our lab include a chapter I wrote summarizing the past 40 years of research into the language abilities of apes, including sign-language using apes and those that use keyboard systems (Lyn 2012). Most of my career to date has been spent working on various animal language studies where findings show the basic ability to use symbols communicatively is shared by chimpanzees, bonobos and other apes. Dolphins are another species in which language has been studied. Another chapter I’ve written compares early symbol use in two bonobos and four dolphins from three different long-term projects, showing that there are many similarities among apes, dolphins and human children when learning symbols (Lyn, 2008).
Publications can be found here
The current focus of my lab has been influenced by our recent series of studies showing that highly enriched rearing environments not only lead to symbolic abilities, but they also make apes smarter in general. That is, we’ve found that language-competent apes outperform typically–reared apes on a series of tasks of complex social, physical, and communicative skills (Lyn, 2010, Russell, Lyn, Schaeffer, and Hopkins, 2011). These findings still beg the questions – how do other species compare? and what is it about these environments that can support higher-level thinking?
PrimateCast from Kyoto University discussing our work
Right now, we want to expand these findings as far as we can. We want to study many different species using the same tests, so that we can do direct comparisons. This is not easy because the species we are studying have such different bodies and senses, so the tests need be carefully designed to allow each species the same chance of success. Also, we want to sample as many species in as many different environments as possible, to try to see which environments support complex thought and which do not. For this, we will soon be recruiting pet dogs to participate in our studies.
Our lab is also animal welfare oriented. We have completed a number of studies on the effects of enrichment on captive animals (e.g. Franks, Lyn, Klein, & Reiss, 2009) with the hope of bettering the lives of animals in human care. To that end, our current project at the Humane Society has a secondary purpose – to use the data collected from the testing to create a comprehensive behavioral evaluation that can be used to better match shelter dogs with potential owners. To support that research, please visit the project at experiment.com.
I will be back at 1 pm EDT (10 am PDT, 6 pm BST), I’m looking forward to seeing your questions – AMA!