Meet Dr. Cat Hobaiter, a primatologist working on communication and cognition in wild apes!

What is your scientific background?

My undergrad was in Biological Sciences at the University of Edinburgh. I took a Psychology class early on and came across the idea that evolution had shaped not only our bodies but also our minds – that had me hooked!

After graduating I went out to do fieldwork for the first time – four months studying forest baboon ecology. It was one of those wild shot-in-the-dark projects, at the time it wasn’t even clear that there were forest living baboons in Budongo – it took me three months before I saw more than footprints. But I loved it – for me, fieldwork is the perfect combination of science, problem-solving, and outdoor fun. From a research perspective, I believe that to understand the evolution of behaviour we have to investigate it under the natural conditions that require its full expression.

I’ve been working and living in the field for almost 13-years now and it’s still my favourite office. There’s always something new to find out about, and being able to slowly see the patterns in the behaviour emerge over the years is immensely satisfying. I’ve been mostly based with the chimpanzee groups at the Budongo Conservation Field Station in Uganda, but I’ve been lucky enough to work with several other sites and ape species. I’m currently sitting in a car on the way up to Bwindi to work with the mountain gorillas (I’m *very* VERY excited).

How did you choose your field of study?

After my undergrad, I knew I wanted to study comparative behaviour – looking across modern species for patterns of similarity and difference – but would have happily gone into any species or area. A professor introduced me to a colleague of his – Prof Richard Byrne – in St Andrews. I popped up for a chat and a cup of tea and I ended up going out to work with wild baboons for four months. We realised that it would never make a suitable Ph.D. (not without 20years of funding..), but Dick had wanted to look at ape gestural communication in the wild for years and I was happy to have a crack; in the end, it kicked off a whole career.

Which topic are you working on at the moment? Why did you choose this topic and how do you think you’ll make a difference?

My main focus is communication and cognition in wild apes, and at the moment we’re doing two things. (1) We’re looking across more groups and species of apes. Most of our data so far comes from one or two groups of chimps and bonobos, but in terms of understanding the full potential of ape communication, this is like only studying human language in one or two small towns. We need to compare more sites to be able to ask questions like: do chimpanzees have gestural ‘accents’ or ‘dialects’. (2) We’re also finally starting to take a more holistic look at ape communication. For years researchers looked at specific signal types in isolation; that makes sense at the start – you find one thread and you start to pick at it and follow it along. But apes – whether they’re chimps or people – communicate using the full range of signals available to them, sometimes all at the same time. To better understand what information is being exchanged we need to step back and look at the whole picture.

What is a typical day like for you?

I spend about 50% of my time in St Andrews at the University and about 50% of my time away, mostly in the field. My field routine is an early 5 am start (not my favourite thing) and then a walk for an hour or so out to the Waibira group. I love the walk in in the dark while the forest wakes up. We listen for the morning pant-hoots on the way in, Waibira are still not completely habituated and it can take us a little time to find them in the morning. We try to choose one individual and follow them for the day – it gives us a better idea of exactly what chimp behaviour looks like. Some days that means you sit under a nest in the rain while the furry little *subjects* sleep an extra 3 hours; some days you hit the ground running and never stop. Outside of the forest, there is a lot of video coding, data processing, project admin and supervision, and email answering. It’s easy to let this slip and the ‘data mountain of guilt’ pile up. In St Andrews, I teach classes for about 10weeks a year but I’ll also usually be working with Ph.D. students, supervising undergrad (4-5) and MSc projects (2-3), and acting as a tutor for other groups. We’re a pretty small collegiate University so we’ll often also guest lecture for other schools like Biology or Philosophy. I’m on the School ethics committee and tend to get most of the animal proposals to review. Oh, and then there’s the paper and grant writing and reviewing, and trying to get the finance department to accept the ‘receipts’ scribbled in a notebook from the last field-season.

I know it’s pretty unusual for someone with a permanent post to still spend this much time in the field, partly it’s because I have a supportive School who are willing to be flexible about me skyping into meetings or emailing my admin duties and marking through. It takes a pretty massive working week to be ‘on call’ for non-field duties while in the field, but I try hard to make sure that my being here doesn’t impact the students or colleagues that I’m working with. If they need me they can get a hold of me and that takes priority – of course when they’re out here with me they probably get more supervision than they’d like sometimes!

Cat during field work/ Catherine Hobaiter

What are the hardest parts related to this work?

It’s tough on your personal life. I spend more time with the chimps than with my friends and family. I’m pretty lucky to have a partner who is passionate about his work, which also requires him to spend a lot of time away from home, so he ‘gets it’ – but it means we don’t get to spend much time in the same place.

These days even when I’m in the field I’m still very much still in the ‘office’ – email, skype, dropbox. There’s a part of me that’s nostalgic for the old-school fieldwork times when it was a letter once a month or so, and a real feeling of being completely present in the forest. But on a personal level, I’m not sure if I could have continued to do this much fieldwork for this long without things like facetime. And I’m certain my University wouldn’t let me spend this much time in the field without an internet connection that means I can keep in touch with my students almost as easily as I would in Scotland.

Did you ever doubt your abilities as a scientist? Why? How did you handle these situations/feelings?

Fieldwork can be frustrating and exhausting, but when I’m in the field I usually feel like I know what I should be doing. My days are packed but structured, and when it all comes together there’s no better feeling than getting to do something that you love and have worked hard to be good at. Outside the field, I can get a little lost in the noise. I’m never quite sure what I should prioritise in the morning, and it’s easy to get distracted when there are so many choices and options. I’ll procrastinate and then end up working late to ‘catch up’ on what I feel I should have gotten done with the day. I’m trying harder now to have a clear plan for each couple of days and a general plan for the week or month. I’ll also set specific days aside for research or writing – I’ve learned I can’t dip in and out of this easily and that the only way to make it happen is to block the time out my diary and treat it as just as important and inviolate as I would meetings or other duties.

I’ve had a pretty tough time trying to get grant funding over the past few years; I probably put in over 20+ applications including 5 or 6 large (>£500k) ones that took a huge amount of time and energy. I had a reasonable amount of luck with the smaller ones but nothing substantial enough to get Ph.D. studentships with. At a certain point, I decided to give myself a break from it and go back to writing papers. It helped to feel like a ‘scientist’ again, and now I feel like I can give grant writing another go.

What is the funniest or most memorable thing that has happened to you while working in science?

Everyone has their field war-stories they break out over dinner: the time I turned around to find a black cobra sitting up behind me, getting stuck in the whirlwind chaos of fur and teeth and screaming of a huge intercommunity encounter, seeing a chimp fall flat on his face in the middle of a display because he got his foot stuck in a climber and trying (and failing) hard not to laugh.. It’s tough to pick! But one of my most memorable days was in the first weeks of trying to habituate the new chimp group – we’d been working flat out for weeks surveying and were excited to try to track the chimps for once. We heard a group nearby and were making our way slowly towards them feeling pretty smug about how well we were doing without spooking them – we eventually made it all the way to the base of their tree when a chimp swings through just next to us and on her way past looks right at me. I swear we both did a comedy double-take of recognition – it turns out that she was Nora, one of the females from our Sonso group, I’d worked with her right through my Ph.D. but she’d emigrated at the end and we weren’t sure where to. Turns out she’d moved just next door! But the feeling that she knew who I was was really poignant. In the end, she and the other Sonso girls we found, later on, became our secret weapon and were a huge factor in helping the group habituate to us much more quickly than we expected.

Do you come from an academic family?

My family are academics but not scientists. I’m not sure where it came from but I loved science before I really knew what ‘science’ was. I was the kid that wanted to know ‘why’ all the time and kept taking stuff to pieces to see how it worked. I remember reading Stephen Hawking’s A brief history of time under the duvet with a torch and a dictionary. I was incredibly lucky to grow up in households where I really believed that as long as I worked hard I could be whatever I wanted.

How does your family regard your career choice?

Proud; bemused; happy as long as I’m happy; would probably like it if I called more often.

Besides your scientific interests, what are your personal interests? 

I love climbing. As a field researcher there’s not much segregation of life and work and it’s easy for me to let that ethos spill over into non-fieldwork time. So at home on a couple of weeknights my climbing buddy (who’s not an academic and doesn’t take no for an answer – exam/grant/marking time or not) will pick me up at 5 pm and we’ll climb for a few hours. It’s an awesome way to cut through all the work fog and focus on exactly what’s in front of you. When I can get out of town I’ll go up to the mountains – either climbing or for a scramble and a bivy.

I live in a tiny cottage in a field in the middle of nowhere, so if the weather is a bit too Scottish to get to the mountains or the beach then a decent cup of tea and a potter in the wood shed makes me pretty happy.

What kind of prejudices, if any, did you have to face? How did that make you feel? Were you able to overcome these?

Primatology has a lot of amazing female role models in it, and I usually feel like being small and a woman gives me a distinct advantage in primate forest-based fieldwork (wild animals don’t worry so much about me being around and I don’t have to duck as far to avoid the branch/cobweb to the face). On the other hand, I’ve had tenure for over 4-years now and am still ‘mistaken’ for a grad-student (although in fairness my fondness for sci-fi t-shirts and shorts year-round may contribute to this). I used to try harder to make myself look like I fit some generic expectation for a ‘grownup’ scientist, these days I’m much happier doing and wearing whatever makes me comfortable.

In your opinion, which changes, if any, are needed in the scientific system to be more attractive to female scientists and possible future scientists?

It’s not specific to female scientists but I do wish we trained grad-students better for life as a ‘real’ academic – or at least told them what was involved. I love teaching, but I thought that switching to a lectureship would mean that I did teaching and research. Ha! Right? In reality that takes up a fraction of my time; whereas admin and other duties are an overwhelming avalanche at first – particularly things that while with experience you can do quickly (like reviewing committee proposals, prepping tutorials, or moderating someone’s marking) take much longer at the start. These days it’s something I’ll try to talk to the students I work with about. The academic community on Twitter is also an amazing resource for ideas, information, and support.


You can reach out to Catherine via and follow her on Twitter!