Dr Zanna Clay

Dr Zanna Clay

School of Psychology
Marie Curie Post-doctoral Research Fellow

Contact details

School of Psychology
University of Birmingham
B15 2TT

Dr Zanna Clay is a primatologist and comparative psychologist studying the evolution of communication and empathy in great apes and the development of cultural cognition in young human children. Dr Clay is a specialist in bonobo behaviour and communication, having studied them using observational and experimental techniques in both captivity and the wild.


Dr Clay is a MarieCurie Research Fellow working with Dr Claudio Tennie on a project exploring the evolution and development of imitation from cultural and communication perspectives. Prior to this, Dr Clay worked as  Post-Doc in the Department of Comparative Cognition in the University of Neuchatel, Switzerland and before that, as a Post-doctoral Research Fellowship with Prof Frans de Waal at Emory University, Atlanta.  Dr Clay’s doctoral work was on vocal communication in bonobos and its links to language evolution.

Dr Clay’s research interests include the evolution of animal communication, culture and comparative approaches to the evolution of language, as well as primate empathy and emotion development.  She is also motivated to understand the dynamic relationship between vocal and social life, the development of signaling in non-human primates and how empathy develops in young animals and children.

Dr Clay completed her PhD at the Univ. of St Andrews with Prof Klaus Zuberbühler, on vocal communication in bonobos. Using two key contexts, feeding and sex, she explored evidence for some roots which may have supported language evolution. She focuses on bonobos (Pan paniscus) as despite being our closest living relatives, very little is understood about them. Combining playback experiments and observational studies, Dr Clay examined how bonobos use vocalisations to navigate their social and physical landscapes, such as the production and comprehension of call sequences, the social use of calls and the effects of audience presence. She extends this research into looking at links between communication and cultural cognition in both great apes and children.


Research interests

Evolution of language; Primate cognition; Cultural evolution; Animal communication; Empathy; Socio-emotional development


Schamberg, I., Cheney, D. L., Clay, Z., Hohmann, G., & Seyfarth, R. M. (2016). Call combinations, vocal exchanges and interparty movement in wild bonobos. Animal Behaviour, 122, 109-116.

Gruber, T., & Clay, Z. (2016). A Comparison Between Bonobos and Chimpanzees: A Review and Update. Evolutionary Anthropology25(5), 239-252.

Clay, Z., Furuichi, T., & de Waal, F. B. M (2016). Obstacles and catalysts for peaceful behaviour in chimpanzees and bonobos. Behaviour (Online In Press) 

Clay, Z., Ravaux, L., de Waal, F. B. M, & Zuberbuhler, K. (2016). Bonobos (Pan paniscus) vocally protest against violations of social expectations. Journal of Comparative Psychology. (In Press)

Clay, Z. Archbold, J., Zuberbuhler, K. (2015). Functional flexibility in wild bonobo vocalisations. PeerJ. In Press

Clay, Z. Pople, S. & Hood, B. Kita, S., 2014. Young children make their gestural communication systems more language-like: Segmentation and linearisation of semantic elements in motion events.   Psychological Science.

Clay, Z. & de Waal, F.B.M. 2014. Sex and strife:post-conflict sexual contacts in bonobos. Behaviour. In Press (Online)

Genty, E., Clay, Z., Hobaiter, C., & Zuberbuhler, K. 2014 Multi-modal use of a socially-directed signal in bonobos. PLoS One. 9(1): e84738.

Clay, Z. & de Waal, F.B.M. 2013. The development of socio-emotional competence in bonobos. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science USA.

Clay, Z. & de Waal, F.B.M. 2012. Bonobos respond to distress in others: Consolation across the age spectrum. PLoS One, 8(1):e55206

Clay, Z. & Zuberbühler, K. 2014. Social awareness in chimpanzees and bonobos: insights from studies of vocal communication. Invited chapter, The Social Origins of Language, Oxford University Press.

Clay, Z., & Zuberbühler, K. 2012 Communication during sex among female bonobos: effects of dominance, solicitation and audience. Scientific Reports, 2, 291

Clay, Z., Smith, C. L. Smith, Blumstein, D. T. 2012. Food-associated vocalizations in mammals and birds: what do these calls really mean? Animal Behaviour, 88,323-327.

Clay, Z. & Iacoboni, M. (2011). Mirroring Fictional Others. Exploring mirror neuron mechanisms underlying our empathy for fictional characters. Philosophy & Aesthetic Psychology. Elisabeth Shellekens & Peter Goldie (Eds). Oxford University Press.

Clay, Z. 2011 Girl power: the roots of female dominance and bonding in bonobos. . Radical Anthropology, 5, 5-11.

Clay, Z. & Zuberbühler, K. 2011. The structure of bonobo copulation calls during reproductive and non-reproductive sex. Ethology, 117, 1158- 1169.

Clay, Z., Pika, S., Gruber, T., & Zuberbühler, K. 2011. Female bonobos use copulation calls as social signals. Biology Letters, 7, 513- 516.

Clay, Z., & Zuberbühler, K. 2011. Bonobos extract meaning from call sequences. PLoS One, 6, e18786

Gruber, T., Clay, Z., & Zuberbuhler, K. 2010. A comparison of bonobo and chimpanzee tool use: evidence for a female bias in the Pan lineage.  Animal Behaviour, 80, 1023-1033.

Clay, Z. & Zuberbühler, K. 2009.Food associated calling sequences in captive bonobos,Pan paniscus (2009).Animal Behaviour, 77, 1387-1396.