Lelia Bridgeland-Stephens

University of Birmingham


Wild minds: how do apes learn about and use their physical environments?


  • Jackie Chappell
  • Susannah Thorpe

PhD Summary

I am looking into how rehabilitated Bornean orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus) learn about and use their physical and social environments. Being the largest arboreal animal in the world in a dynamic tropical forest environment, orangutans face a range of complex cognitive and physical challenges, for example nest building, navigating the forest canopy, selecting which foods to eat, avoiding danger, and building psychological resilience. By gaining an understanding of each of these challenges, we can improve the design of orangutan captive environments in order to better prepare them for being released back into the wild.

What inspires you

Having been home educated on the Isle of Wight, I was lucky enough to spend lots of time outdoors, learning about the countryside, climbing trees, and doing surveys of the marine life on the beach at the end of the road. I spent most of my childhood summers volunteering for organic farms, tree-planting missions, and environmental charities in the UK, Ireland, and Portugal, which helped to grow my love of the outdoors and all things natural.

Previous activity

I studied Environmental and Countryside Management at BTEC and BSc level, before undertaking a Masters in Anthrozoology: the study of the ways humans and other animals interact with, impact, and relate to one another. This led to an interest in the ethical aspects of how humans value and are part of the natural world, as well as in the cognitive similarities and differences between humans and other animals. In 2016, I spent seven months volunteering and working at research centres and wildlife rehabilitation centres across South America, where I developed a keen interest in primates (both human and non-human!). While studying for my Masters degree, I worked full time at the University of Bath, coordinating the Centre for Doctoral Training in Sustainable Chemical Technologies.

Why did you choose doctoral research?

While I was working alongside academics and PhD students at the University of Bath, I was really inspired by the good that can come of research, and the incredible opportunity it provides to learn about something completely new, and to bring value into the world.

Why did you choose CENTA?

Having worked in a Centre for Doctoral Training, I fully appreciate the value of the peer support environment CENTA offers, in contrast to being a lone PhD student. I also feel that the training program is invaluable, and will help us towards becoming well-rounded researchers by giving us skills that we will carry forward beyond the end of our PhD projects.

Future plans

Studying with CENTA will not only give me invaluable research skills and practical field experience, but will also help me to grow a broad network of like-minded researchers and be part of a team. In the future, I would like to continue field research in the area of great ape cognition, and I feel that this PhD will give me all the skills, experience, and contacts I need in order to achieve this.