Interview with an Author – Malini Suchak

Last week, we published ‘Ape duos and trios: spontaneous cooperation with free partner choice in chimpanzees’, a  fascinating study showing that chimpanzees housed in a socially complex setting spontaneously cooperate with multiple partners of their choosing.

We invited the first author Malini Suchak to comment on her research and her experience publishing with us.

PJ: Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

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MS: I have always been fascinated by finding out what animals were thinking, so it was natural for me to pursue research in the field of animal cognition. Specifically, I’m interested in how animals navigate their social relationships—what makes them work and what are the deal-breakers? While working on my Ph.D. at Emory University with Frans de Waal, I had the opportunity to explore the cooperative side of social relationships in nonhuman primates. Currently, I am an Assistant Professor in the Animal Behavior, Ecology, and Conservation Department at Canisius College, where I am starting to take my research interests in a new direction. Specifically, I have begun to study social cognition in companion animals—our cats and dogs. These species are really interesting to me because they share their social worlds with multiple species—other cats and dogs, and humans (and the occasional bird, ferret, or reptile).

PJ: Can you briefly explain the research you published in PeerJ?

MS: When deciding whether or not to invest a cooperative action, an individual has to make a series of complex decisions ranging from how much effort to invest to who to invest that effort in. However, most research on cooperation to date tests individuals apart from their social group and hasn’t really captured all of the decisions that go into cooperative acts. We were most interested in who the chimpanzees chose (and who they avoided) as cooperative partners. We found that they were very selective—they tended to choose partners who were close in rank to themselves. Interestingly, their preferences were mutual, meaning that if Georgia preferred Socko, for example, Socko also tended to prefer Georgia as a partner. So, we really saw the development of consistent cooperative relationships in the task.

PJ: Do you have any anecdotes about this research?

MS: Much of the time cooperation was initiated by one chimpanzee simply approaching another who was waiting. But occasionally there were really interesting interactions that led to cooperation. One example was a time when Tara and Borie were already working together, Katie approached and took Tara’s place (which Tara was not particularly happy about). Shortly thereafter, Borie left, leaving Katie without a partner. Katie then went to Tara and reached a hand out towards her—a typical sign of reconciliation in chimpanzees. After briefly playing, the two of them re-approached the cooperation apparatus and began to work together. It was a really interesting example of the strategic way the chimpanzees were approaching this situation.

PJ: What surprised you the most with these results?

MS: One of the most surprising things for me was the sheer amount of cooperation we observed—over 3,500 acts! We didn’t even train the chimpanzees how to do the task; they figured it out themselves. They were clearly very motivated to participate—we would often see chimpanzees sitting in the background waiting for a spot to become available or their preferred partners to approach before working.

PJ: What kinds of lessons do you hope the public takes away from the research?

MS: Humans are an extremely cooperative species; there is no doubt about that. But, I hope seeing a demonstration of more complex cooperation will make people pause and think about the similarities that really are there.

PJ: How would you describe your experience of our submission / review process?

MS: Efficient. There was no time wasted from submission to review to revision. I also appreciate the transparency of the whole process—which is extremely unusual in peer review these days.

PJ: Do you have anything to say about your overall experience with us? Anything surprising?

MS: It was refreshing how responsive everyone at PeerJ is. It’s great to contact a journal and get a timely and friendly response.

PJ: In conclusion, how would you describe PeerJ in three words?

Efficient. Friendly. Accessible.

PJ: Thanks very much for your time!

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