Project highlights

  • Extensive observations on zoo and/or sanctuary-housed gorillas to better understand the physical and mental challenges posed to them by their ex-situ habitats
  • Developing innovative enrichments for captive gorillas and testing the efficacy of these at partner zoos and/or sanctuaries
  • Working with zoo and sanctuary partners with wide ranging expertise to create design and husbandry ideas to enhance the welfare and quality of life for ex situ gorillas


All great apes are at significant risk of extinction. Those living in sanctuaries across Africa and SE Asia, and those in zoos across the world, are therefore central to the survival of the species. The ability of sanctuaries to reintroduce great apes into the wild, and of zoos to preserve the species, relies on encouraging them to exhibit the behaviours they need to survive in natural habitats. A key issue is how to replicate the complexity of forest, and the physical and mental challenges it poses for wild great apes on a daily basis, in the relatively simple and unchanging enclosures that are typical of captive settings.

The Enclosure Design Tool (EDT) is an interactive web-based application we developed to translate research on wild apes into a format that captive settings can use to encourage wild-type behaviours in their great apes. It compares behavioural-ecology data from captive individuals to data profiled for wild individuals and recommends enclosure modifications to elicit missing or under-represented wild-type behaviours. It focusses on replicating the mechanical challenges apes experience in the wild to create enclosures that behave naturally, rather than ones that look natural to visitors.

This studentship will create an EDT for gorillas to complement existing EDTs for orangutans and chimpanzees. Gorillas are difficult to care for in captivity because of their large size, advanced cognitive abilities, sensitivity to stress, and their complex natural social groupings. They are also at significant risk of contracting zoonotic diseases from humans.  The aims of this PhD are 1) conduct literature reviews to better understand the physical and cognitive demands of natural environments for wild gorillas and 2) to apply the findings to captive environments to ensure that zoos and sanctuaries can meet the health and biological needs of the gorillas in their care. The results will guide development of new ways to replicate natural habitats in captivity and facilitate positive social groupings to improve their quality of life and chances of successful reintroduction to the wild (where this is possible). This project is a partnership between the University of Birmingham, Paignton Zoo and Twycross Zoo and a range of gorilla sanctuaries in Africa. It will embed the student in a global One Health programme (led by Unwin) that aims to achieve optimal health outcomes for people, animals, plants, and their shared environment, by recognising their interconnectedness.


University of Birmingham


  • Organisms and Ecosystems


Project investigator

  • Prof. Susannah Thorpe (School of Biosciences, University of Birmingham, [email protected])


How to apply


  • Literature review of the behavioural ecology of wild and captive gorillas. This will include locomotor ecology, environmental cognition, psychological resilience and social behaviour and learning.
  • Observational and experimental studies of the behaviour of ex situ gorillas to fill the knowledge gaps most relevant to improving the quality of life for zoo and sanctuary gorillas.
  • Translate those findings to develop mechanisms to encourage natural behaviours in captivity by creating enclosures that mimic the mechanical behaviour of natural forest habitats for gorillas and facilitate natural social behaviour. Test these at zoos/sanctuaries where necessary and refine accordingly.
  • Create a series of recommendations for ex situ gorilla enclosure design and husbandry and share them with our network of partners via the UK’s Great Ape Welfare group (chaired by Thorpe) and the Pan African Sanctuary Alliance (PASA).

Training and skills

Training in specialist methodologies required for behavioural data collection and One Health methodologies will be provided by Thorpe, Chappell and Unwin. Chappell will provide training in sampling and recording cognitive and social, while Thorpe will provide training recording movement and ecology. Chappell and external training will provide additional intensive training in the specific programming and statistical techniques required for this project (e.g. R and Python programming, linear modelling techniques such as etc).


Partners and collaboration

This PhD studentship is part of a broader research programme in which we are working with a number of organisations involved in conservation and rehabilitation of a variety of species. This project has been co-developed with Paignton Zoo and Twycross Zoo. Our shared aim is to generate new data on zoo and sanctuary housed gorillas to better understand their welfare needs and to translate those finding into improved husbandry techniques and enclosure modifications. Shared supervision will enhance the student’s experience by embedding them in zoological research and its application to the life sciences industry. The results will be disseminated via the Great Ape Welfare group, via Tywcross Zoo’s links to the international zoo community and via our partners in the Pan African Sanctuary Alliance.

We do not currently have a CASE partner for this project, but Twycross Zoo is a CENTA partner.

Further details

We expect candidates to have a Merit or Distinction at MSc level in a relevant subject. Experience of collecting behavioural data on primates would also be an advantage, particularly on great apes. Some knowledge of biomechanics and/or cognitive research is beneficial but not essential.


See the Enclosure Design Tool we have created to help zoos and sanctuaries encourage their chimps and orangutans to use wild-type behaviours:

Please contact us if you have further questions:

Prof. Susannah Thorpe

School of Biosciences

University of Birmingham

+44 (0)121 414 5040

[email protected]

Dr Jackie Chappell

School of Biosciences

University of Birmingham

+44 (0)121 414 3257

[email protected]

If you wish to apply to the project please visit:

Possible timeline

Year 1

Literature review of gorilla behavioural ecology and welfare n wild and captive settings to identify knowledge gaps. Undertake training in behavioural ecology data collection at Twycross and other UK zoos. Begin observational studies and design first ideas for relevant experimental phase.

Year 2

Complete observational work, refine experimental phase and complete data collection.  Begin analysis of observational data.


Year 3

Complete analysis of all data. Translate into mechanisms to replicate natural behaviours in gorillas throughout the life course in captive settings and test the efficacy of these at Twycross and other UK zoos (and global sanctuaries where possible). Refine accordingly. Write and publish resulting papers.

Further reading

Chappell, J, Thorpe SKS (in press) The role of great ape behavioral ecology in One Health: implications for captive welfare and re-habilitation success. American Journal of Primatology

Robbins, M.M., Robbins, A.M. (2018). Variation in the social organization of gorillas: Life history and socioecological perspectives. Evolutionary Anthropology. 27: 218-233.

Chappell, J., Phillips, A. C., van Noordwijk, M. A., Mitra Setia, T., & Thorpe, S. K. S. (2015). The Ontogeny of Gap Crossing Behaviour in Bornean Orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus wurmbii). PloS One, 10(7), e0130291–15. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0130291

Tecwyn, E. C., Thorpe, S. K., & Chappell, J. (2013). A novel test of planning ability: Great apes can plan step-by-step but not in advance of action. Behav Processes, 100, 174–184. doi: 10.1016/j.beproc.2013.09.016

van Casteren, A., Sellers, W. I., Thorpe, S. K. S., Coward, S., Crompton, R. H. & Ennos, A. R. (2012) Nest Building Orangutans Demonstrate Engineering Know-How to Produce Safe, Comfortable Beds. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences  109, 6873-6877

Remis, M. J. (1995). Effects of body size and social context on the arboreal activities of lowland gorillas in the Central African Republic. American Journal of Physical Anthropology. 97: 413-433.


The main risk to the project from the COVID-19 pandemic is the potential to work in and with gorilla sanctuaries across Africa. All observational and experimental phases can be undertaken entirely at UK zoos if international travel continues to be problematic. Short-term disruptions to field work because of local or national lockdowns could be accommodated by flexibility in the timeline. If live observations in zoos is stopped, we can apply our existing techniques in collecting video data from fixed cameras in enclosures.