Picture of Heidi Pearson

Heidi Pearson

Phone: 907-796-6271 (office)
Email: hcpearson@alaska.edu
Home: http://uashome.alaska.edu/~HCPEARSON
Office location: 205 C Anderson



The BREACH lab has several on-going projects related to social convergence between cetaceans and primates. Despite being evolutionarily separated for 95 million years and the land-sea interface, cetaceans and primates exhibit remarkable similarities in social and cognitive behaviors. In addition to having large relative brain sizes and complex neuroanatomy, both taxa share behavioral similarities such as long-term bond formation, fission-fusion dynamics, cooperative foraging, tool use, and culture. Comparisons between cetaceans and primates thus provide insight into how two distantly related taxa converged on social and cognitive complexity and further our understanding of the underlying ecological factors that have patterned this complexity. The social intelligence hypothesis, which states that large brains evolved to solve complex social problems, offers one potential explanation for convergence between primates and cetaceans. 

During August 2016, we collaborated with Dr. Zarin Machanda (Tufts University) to lead a comparative primate-cetacean symposium at the joint meeting of the International Primatological Society/American Society of Primatologists conference. Details of this symposium may be found here: https://www.asp.org/IPS/meetings/abstractDisplay.cfm?eventNumber=&expand=false&abstractID=6433&confEventID=6473&day=104&parenteventid=6473

Currently, my students, collaborators, and I are teasing out aspects of cetacean-primate social and cognitive convergence by examining association patterns, social behavior, grouping patterns, and foraging strategies in three cetacean species (dusky dolphins, short-beaked common dolphins, humpback whales) and one primate species (chimpanzees). The over-arching hypothesis is that female behavior is the driver of social dynamics. This is based on the tenant that in species lacking paternal care, female reproductive success is driven by prey availability and predator avoidance while male reproductive success is driven by access to females. Thus, to understand ultimate influences on a species’ social system, it is imperative to study females.

Along the south coast of Portugal, PhD student Joana Castro is studying mother-calf strategies in short-beaked common dolphins. She is using boat-based focal follow observations and unmanned aerial vehicles to obtain fine-scale information on mother-calf grouping patterns, spatial positioning, and behavior. Off the coast of Kaikoura, New Zealand, Honors student Adrian Fanucci-Kiss collected preliminary data on these same behaviors in dusky dolphin mother-calf pairs. We are also starting to collect similar data for humpback whales in Juneau, Alaska. Ultimately, these data will be compared with similar data on chimpanzees. We are working with Zarin Machanda and the Kibale Chimpanzee Project to compare the cetacean data with similar data from chimpanzees.

Unraveling the social behavior of species which spend most their lives underwater requires technological innovation. As such, we have developed a non-invasive animal-borne camera for dolphins that records fine-scale behavioral and social data. This project is in collaboration with Drs. Gabriel Machovsky-Capuska and Peter Jones of the University of Sydney. Check out this link to see some of the footage: http://tvnz.co.nz/seven-sharp/secret-life-dolphins-watch-never-before-seen-footage-beneath-water-video-6482652