Location: Stratford Campus, Room: AE.2.10
Telephone: 020 8223 2817
School of Psychology
The University of East London
Christel Schneider is a Comparative Developmental Psychologist who joined the School of Psychology as Lecturer in 2013. Her main areas of expertise are the development of gestural communication and early social relationships in human and non-human great apes (bonobos, chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans). She has carried out her research with non-human great apes in various Zoological Institutions in Germany, Belgium and The Netherlands. More recently, Christel has began investigating and comparing the earliest social relationship, the mother-infant dyad, in human and non-human great apes.
Another project Christel is working on, is an investigation of the lived experiences of homeless people in East London. This work is being carried out in collaboration with Dr Mike Chase (School of Psychology, UEL).
Christel is currently initiating a “Conservation through Education” Initiative, where the aim is to educate school children about our closest living relatives, the non-human great apes, and their plight. Schools that are interested in this initiative are more then welcome to make contact with her to discuss participaion.
Christel teaches on both undergraduate and postgraduate programmes. She is Acting Module Leader for BSc “Development through the Lifespan” (Year 3) and MSc “Research Methods”. She is both tutor and project supervisor for undergraduates and postgraduates.
My research focuses on the early communication and social relationships in bonobos, chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans. Currently, I am particular interested in contrasting the ape mother–infant relationship with that of humans.
Our closest living relatives, bonobos, chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans make regular use of gestures to communicate with their conspecifics. Although the gestural communication of non-human great apes continues to receive increasing attention due to its proposed implications for the evolution of human communication, little is known about the emergence of gesturing.
Focus of the current dissertation was the ontogenetic origin of gestural communication in the four non-human ape species. In particular I investigated: the onset and early use of gestures; the role mothers might play in regard to their offsprings’ learning of gestures, and the use of head gestures across species. Using focal animal sampling, a total of 25 captive ape infants (six bonobos, eight chimpanzees, three gorillas, and eight orangutans) were observed periodically during their first 20 months of life. I primarily recorded the gestural behaviour (i.e., signals that were generated by the movement of the hand, arm, head or body position) of infants and peripherally the gestures of their mothers.
In the first study, I conducted a systematic exploration of the onset and early use of gestural communication in bonobos, chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans. I investigated: i) the onset ages of gesturing, ii) the order in which signals of the different sensory modalities (tactile, visual and auditory) appeared, iii) the extent to which infants made use of these modalities in their early signalling, and iv) the behavioural contexts where signals were employed. I found orangutans to differ in several important gestural characteristics to that of African ape species. They showed the latest gestural onset, made no use of signals of the auditory sensory domain and were more likely to use signals in food-related interactions in the first half a year of gesturing. In all four species, both tactile and visual signals were the first to appear. Auditory gestures appeared only later in the African species. While visual gesturing gained prominence over time, tactile signalling decreased in African apes. The findings also indicated that motor ability, which encourages independence from caregivers, may be an important antecedent in gestural onset and development.
In the second study, I explored the role that genus Pan mothers played in their offspring’s learning of gestures. To do so, I examined the similarity of gestural repertoires (in terms of signal types and their frequency) in bonobo and chimpanzee mother–infant dyads. Comparisons across the age-groups revealed that infants of both species were unlikely to share gestures with their own or other mothers (i.e., unrelated adult females). Gestural sharing was, however, prevalent within respective age-groups. Within and across species, infant–infant and mother–mother groups were homogenous regarding the types of gestures they shared, but showed individual differences in the frequency that particular gestures were utilised. There was therefore limited evidence that infants learned their gestures by observing their mothers. I proposed that while infants’ use of gestures is shaped by individual learning opportunities, biological inheritance plays an important role in their formation (including substantial impact of the behavioural contexts in which signals have evolved).
In my last study, I provided a quantitative estimate of the prevalence and diversity of head gestures across the four ape species and found bonobos to be the most prolific in terms of their variety of head signals and frequency. I also reported the first observations of “preventive” head shaking in bonobos. Head shakes in these instances were associated with situations that are best described as the signal producer preventing (or trying to prevent) another individual from engaging (or re-engaging) in a certain activity. This observation underlined a yet rarely observed motive in non-human apes’ signalling.
The current findings have shown how biological, socio-environmental and life history factors are implicated in the story of when and how gestures first appear across species, and how they are learnt and utilised within the lifespan. The research affords unique knowledge about the emergence of gesturing in the non-human great apes and, in doing so, offers important foundations that future studies can build on.