Meet Dr. Natalia Borrego

What do you study?
I study the ultimate and proximate drivers of animal behavior, with an emphasis on the evolutionary drivers of cognition. I’m especially interested in the evolutionary origins of cognitive complexity and use African carnivores (e.g. lions) as a comparative framework. I apply the mechanistic insights gained from my cognition studies to issues in wildlife conservation.

What are you working on right now?
My work takes place in zoological facilities and with wild populations in South Africa and Botswana. In zoos, I am experimentally comparing cognition in lions and other carnivores using behavioral enrichment techniques that both benefit the animals and serve as carnivore “IQ tests”.

In the field, I am particularly interested in the evolutionary paradox of cooperation and identifying factors that favor the expression of cooperative hunting. For example, compared to individually acting lions, lions that hunt cooperatively do not enjoy a higher success rate or greater food intake. This begs the questions: why and when do lions hunt cooperatively? Under
what circumstances is cooperative hunting cognitively demanding?

Answering these questions requires detailed analysis of individual- and group- level behaviors during hunts. However, the occurrence and timing of lion hunts are unpredictable and hunts often occur in dense bush, over long distances, or at night, resulting in partial observations and few details on individual-level behavior.

To circumvent these challenges, I am working with the San peoples of Botswana to investigate factors that influence lion predation behavior. The San People have been living in the Kalahari for ~20,000 years and are well known for their outstanding animal tracking abilities. San trackers have spent most of their lives as hunters and gathers, following a tradition of tracking and interpreting wildlife spoor (e.g. lion foot prints). By employing San trackers, I able to gather behavioral data on African lion hunting behavior at an otherwise impossible level of detail, build the capacity of the San trackers and add value to traditional field craft skills of the San people.

Why do you do this work?
I aim to bridge the gap between ethology and conservation, thereby informing the effective
management of African carnivore populations, which are currently at risk from population
declines and human-wildlife conflict.

Read about Natalia’s research involving South African carnivores.

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