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Durham University

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Staff Profile

Dr Zanna Clay, PhD

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Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology
Telephone: +44 (0) 191 33 49114
Room number: RH009

Contact Dr Zanna Clay (email at


I am a comparative and developmental psychologist with expertise in primatology. I study and compare great apes and young children in order to investigate the evolutionary and developmental basis of hominid social cognition and behavior. My main interests are the development & evolution of social cognition and communication, focussing on empathy, language and social learning. 

 Research Interests 

Evolutionary & Developmental Perspectives on:

  • Social cognition and communication
  • Empathy & socio-emotional processes
  • Language evolution
  • Child gesture
  • Social learning and cultural cognition
  • Primate vocal communication (including referential communication & call combinations) 

I am a specialist in great ape behaviour, with particular expertise in bonobos, our closest living relatives. I have experience studying bonobos in the wild, captivity and semi-captivity, including Lola ya Bonobo Sanctuary - where I also act as a long-term Scientific Consultant. 

I conducted my doctoral work with Prof Klaus Zuberbuhler (University of St Andrews) investigating bonobo vocal communication and language evolution. I conducted post-doctoral work with Prof Frans de Waal (Emory University, USA) examining empathy development in sanctuary-living bonobos. I conducted post-doctoral research in the Dept of Comparative Cognition, University of Neuchatel (Switzerland) studying vocal communication in wild bonobos at Lui Kotale, DR Congo (MPI-EVA).

I completed a Marie Curie Research Fellowship at the University of Birmingham with Dr Claudio Tennie examining the evolution & development of imitation and language with great apes and children.

Available PhD and MRes research projects

I would welcome applications from people interested in Comparative and Developmental Psychology, more specifically on the origins of communication, empathy and social cognition. I would be happy to supervise both experimental and observational projects working with human children (UK and cross-culturally) and primates. I have a good network of contacts to arrange access to a variety of primates, including wild, sanctuary-living and captive bonobos. For those wishing to embark on a fieldwork PhD study, experience of travel and work in third world countries is a real advantage.

Please contact me if you are interested in making an application

Research Groups

Department of Psychology

Research Interests

  • Comparative Affective Science
  • Evolution and development of empathy
  • Evolution of language and culture
  • Primate behaviour
  • Primate Conservation
  • Science outreach - primatology
  • Social cognition
  • Development of communication and social learning
  • Primate vocal communication
  • Animal cognition
  • Child gesture development
  • Applications to primate conservation

Teaching Areas

  • Advanced Developmental Psychology Review
  • Classic Papers
  • Current Issues in Developmental Psychology & Psychopathology (MSc)
  • Introduction to Psychology 2
  • Research Methods in Psychology

Selected Publications

Chapter in book

  • Clay, Zanna Palagi, Elisabetta & de Waal, Frans B.M. (2018). Ethological Approaches to Empathy in Primates. In Neuronal Correlates of Empathy: From Rodent to Man. Ksenia Meyza & Ewelina Knapska Academic Press. 53-66.
  • Clay, Zanna, Palagi, Elisabetta & de Waal, Frans B.M. (2017). Ethological Approaches to Empathy in Primates. In Neuronal correlates of empathy – from rodent to man. Meyza, Ksenia & Knapska, Ewelina Elsevier.
  • Clay, Zanna & Genty, Emilie (2017). Natural communication in bonobos: Insights into social awareness and the evolution of language. In Bonobos: Unique in Mind Brain and Behavior. Hare, Brian & Yamamoto, Shinya Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Clay, Zanna & Zuberbuhler, Klaus (2014). Vocal communication and social awareness in chimpanzees and bonobos. In The Social Origins of Language. Dor, Daniel, Knight, Chris & Lewis, Jerome Oxford University Press.
  • Clay, Zanna & Iacoboni, Marco (2011). Mirroring Fictional Others. In The Aesthetic Mind, Philosophy and Psychology. Schellekens, Elisabeth & Goldie, Peter Oxford University Press.

Journal Article

Show all publications

Media Contacts

Available for media contact about:

  • Primate behaviour: I am a comparative and devlopmental psychologist interested in origins of human behaviour from developmental and evolutionary perspectives. I study great ape communication and behaviour in order to ask questions about human evolution.
  • Conflict and resolution: I am interested in the evolution of conflict resolution by studying conflict and post-conflict resolution in great apes. This extends to studying consolation, a marker of empathy.
  • Aggression: I am interested in the extent to which aggression and peaceful coexistence shape the societies of our closest living relatives, chimpanzees and bonobos
  • Wildlife: I am passionate about supporting the conservation of primates, and am actively assist bonobo conservation in conjucntion with Lola ya Bonobo Sanctuary, the worlds only bonobo sanctuary
  • Linguistics & Language: My research interests include the evolution of language and communication using insights from non-human primates
  • Human biology and development: Development of communication, with a focus on child gesture, and socio-emotional competence in young chidren
  • Psychology: Development of communication, with a focus on child gesture, and socio-emotional competence in young chidren
  • Evolution:
  • Primate behaviour:
  • General issues:
  • Human impact:
  • Wildlife:
  • Africa:
  • Human biology and development:
  • Psychology:
  • Aggression:
  • Relationships:
  • Stress:
  • Science & Technology:
  • People: Evolution and Biology:
  • The Earth: Animals:


Selected Grants

  • 2019: Production and Perception of facial expressions of emotion in humans and their closest relatives (£476427.00 from ESRC Centre for Social and Economic Research on Innovation in Genomics (INNOGEN))
  • 2018: A behavioual and physiological investigation into the development of sympathetic concern in bonobos (Pan Paniscus) (£4565.52 from National Geographic Society)
  • 2018: Cross-species and cross-cultural investigation into the development of empathy in bonobos (Pan paniscus) and human children (£4315.18 from )
  • 2018: European Research Council Starting Grant €1499 829.00
  • 2018: Open Research Area- ESRC £589 969
  • 2018: Royal Society Research Grant £14 994
  • 2018: Templeton World Charity Foundation (Co-I) with PI Frans de Waal. $232 169
  • 2017: British Academy Small Research Grant (Co-I) with PI Katie Slocombe £9 980
  • 2015: Marie Curie Intra-European Fellowship €303 742
  • 2013: British Academy Small Research Grant £9 967
  • 2013: Leakey Foundation Post-doctoral Research Grant $11 000
  • 2013: National Geographic Research and Exploration Grant $15 000
  • 2010: Grindley Grant, Experimental Psychology Society £500
  • 2010: Lucie Burgers Foundation for Comparative Studies Grant €4800
  • 2009: University of St Andrews School of Psychology Travel Grant
  • 2018: Comparative insights into the development of emotion: Applying thermal-imaging technology to investigate empathy and socio-emotional development in great apes and children (£14994.00 from )