Vittoria Estienne

Doctoral student Department of Primatology, Max Planck Institute

I am interested in the evolution, transmission and development of cultural traits in animals. In particular, I am looking at both ecological conditions and social environment to understand how potential cultural traits appear and are transmitted.

I started to study primate behavior by investigating sexual differences and ontogeny of the singing behavior in wild Indri lemurs. I am currently working on my PhD, focusing on the tool use behavior of wild central African chimpanzees in Gabon.
Chimpanzees’ tool use behaviors are considered cognitively complex and have been demonstrated to represent cultural traditions, differing across populations. In addition, a long term relationship exists between mother and offspring and studies demonstrated the influence of mother’s behavior on the acquisition of these traits by immatures. Within this framework, it is thus interesting to investigate in details the execution of these behaviors and their transmission under natural conditions.

My PhD project focuses on a particular case of tool use performed by chimpanzees at the field site of Loango National Park (Gabon). Here, chimpanzees use sticks to access a highly-valuable but hidden food resource: the underground nests of stingless bees, containing honey and brood. Indirect monitoring of the bee nests using camera traps allowed us to record animal activity at these sites and to observe chimpanzees’ tool use with no disturbance. Using data from six years of monitoring at 100 different bee nests, I investigated the activity patterns of the three consumers exploiting the underground bee nests (i.e.: chimpanzee, forest elephant and honey badger) and the competition occurring among them; moreover, I assessed the ecological constrains to chimpanzees’ success. I am currently working on the analysis of the tool use technique as performed by adult chimpanzees focusing on its complexity and the assessment of individual styles, and on the acquisition of this behavior by immatures.


  • –present
    Doctoral student Department of Primatology, Max Planck Institute