Alex Mielke

Lecturer of Psychology/Leverhulme Early Career Fellow

School of Biological and Behavioural Sciences, Queen Mary University London


My research concerns the evolution of cognitive abilities involved in primate cooperation and communication. My PhD was focused on understanding the differences in the social systems of sooty mangabeys and Western chimpanzees in the Tai Forest in Ivory Coast, with special focus on grooming as a way for primates to make friends and protect their friendships. I also conducted snake experiments with mangabeys to understand the mechanisms underlying cooperation in species with large but coherent social groups. Afterwards, I developed statistical analyses tools based on network analysis for facial expression data in humans and nonhuman primates as part of the NetFACS project at the University of Portsmouth. As a Newton International Fellow, funded by the British Academy, at the University of Oxford, I developed a project entitled ‘Monkeying around: Complexity, cognition, and culture in chimpanzee play’. Currently, I am a Lecturer of Psychology at Queen Mary University London and a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow, affiliated with the Wild Minds Lab at the University of St Andrews, studying syntactical structures in wild ape gesture sequences.


  • Primate Communication
  • Cooperation
  • Animal Social Relationships
  • Play


  • PhD in Biology, 2018

    MPI Evolutionary Anthropology Leipzig

  • MSc in Evolutionary and Comparative Psychology, 2012

    University of St Andrews

  • BSc in Psychology, 2010

    Freie Universität Berlin


Socially tolerant macaques use more complex facial behavior than intolerant macaques
NetFACS: Using network science to understand facial communication systems
Third-Party Interactions
Consistency of social interactions in sooty mangabeys and chimpanzees
Long-term repeatability in social behaviours suggests stable social phenotypes in wild chimpanzees
Are there non-verbal signals of guilt?
Tropical rainforest flies carrying pathogens form stable associations with social nonhuman primates
Factors influencing bacterial microbiome composition in a wild non-human primate community in Taï National Park, Côte d’Ivoire
Flexible decision-making in grooming partner choice in sooty mangabeys and chimpanzees
Social bonds facilitate cooperative resource sharing in wild chimpanzees
Bystanders intervene to impede grooming in western chimpanzees and sooty mangabeys
Vocal fold control beyond the species-specific repertoire in an orang-utan


Cognition and Culture in Chimpanzee Play

Funded by the British Academy and with mentorship by Dr Susana Carvalho in Oxford, this project will ask whether primate play can provide a window into the evolution of complex cognition. Human and animal lives differ so widely that comparative cognitive research struggles to find contexts in which to compare their intelligence directly. Researchers often create experiments to study animal minds in captive settings, but while these experiments are repeatable in humans and other species, they rarely represent challenges that animals face in their natural environment.


This project, awarded to Jerome Micheletta, Bridget Waller, and Julie Duboscq by the Leverhulme Trust, uses network science to untangle the complexity of primate and human facial expression. Facial expressions are the most ubiquitous form of communication in many primate species; they are also the most ephemeral: fleeting and flexible; hard to film and harder to quantify. The last decades have brought advances in capturing the information content of facial communication, namely the adaptation of the muscle-based Facial Action Coding System (FACS), with automated solutions always just a step away.

Primate Communication

My research has focused on communication, its function, and the development of new methods and theoretical frameworks throughout my career. I started by programming an algorithm, based on neural networks, that could be trained to identify individual blue monkeys by their alarm calls, and also tell apart different call types and species (Mielke & Zuberbuehler 2013). We subsequently applied the same method to learned orangutan vocalisations, showing the Rocky, an orangutan in Indianapolis Zoo, had learned to make ‘wookie’ sounds that were distinct from any other vocalisation in the orangutan repertoire (Lameira et al.

Mangabey and Chimpanzee Cooperation and Cognition

I spent three field seasons, from 2013 to 2015, in the Tai Forest, Ivory Coast, to study sooty mangabeys and Western chimpanzees and try to define what, if anything, makes chimpanzee sociality special, and what impact this has on cognitive abilities. While we know a lot about chimpanzee behaviour, sooty mangabeys had received little attention, despite living terrestrialy in large and complex social groups. Splitting my time between one chimpanzee and one mangabey community, I collected the same data in both species to enable us to compare them directly.



Leverhulme Early Career Fellow

University of St Andrews

Nov 2021 – Jun 2023
Formal Chimpanzee Grammar: Computational Linguistics of Chimpanzee Communication

Member of the Senior Common Room

St Antony’s College, Oxford

Jun 2020 – Feb 2022
College Advisor

Newton International Fellowship

University of Oxford

Mar 2020 – Oct 2021
Complexity, cognition, and culture in primate play

Research Fellow

University of Portsmouth

Jun 2019 – Feb 2020
Creation of R Package NetFACS for human and primate facial expression data

Postdoctoral Researcher

MPI Evolutionary Anthropology Leipzig

Jun 2018 – Mar 2019

Doctoral Researcher

MPI Evolutionary Anthropology Leipzig

Oct 2012 – Jun 2018
Social and Cognitive Complexity in Sooty Mangabeys and Chimpanzees in the Tai Forest


Primate Conversations Seminar on Play and Primate Cognition

I recently gave a talk on my current project on chimpanzee play behaviour for the Primate Conversations Seminar Series, here in Oxford. As talks are now virtual, you can watch the talk here:


World Chimpanzee Day

Every year on 14th July, we celebrate World Chimpanzee Day to commemorate the day that Jane Goodall first followed the Gombe chimpanzees, but more importantly we want to raise awareness for the horrible fact that chimpanzees, our closest living relatives, face extinction in the wild across Africa. This year, our lab in Oxford (https://primobevolab.web.ox.ac.uk/) teamed up with a group from the University of Exeter and the Bulindi Chimpanzee & Community Project to create a series of videos that are supposed to inform a general public about chimpanzees and the many wonderful people who study them.

Predictability and variability of association patterns in sooty mangabeys

Now that everyone is talking about keeping association between people as small as possible, it feels good to talk about association in our sooty mangabeys, and our new paper in ‘Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology’ (https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00265-020-2829-y ). Mangabey groups are fairly large; in 2014-2017, the time of this study, our group consisted of 50-70 individuals, give or take. The group moves through the forest as a whole, so usually we all end up in the same place; but that does not mean that you can see everyone all the time: the forest is dense, and the group is spread out, so while the group does not get torn into clear smaller groups, they are stretched out over a large area.