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Robert M. Seyfarth (born February 16, 1948) is an American primatologist and author. With his wife and collaborator Dorothy L. Cheney, he spent years studying the social behavior, communication, and cognition of wild primates in their natural habitat, including more than a decade of field work with baboons in the Okavango Delta of Botswana. Seyfarth, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania until his retirement, is a member of both the United States National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Robert Seyfarth
Born (1948-02-16) February 16, 1948 (age 71)
TitleProfessor of Psychology
Spouse(s)Dorothy Cheney
Academic background
EducationHarvard College
Alma materCambridge University
Doctoral advisorRobert Hinde
Academic work
InstitutionsUniversity of Pennsylvania


Background and careerEdit

Robert M. Seyfarth was born on February 16, 1948.[1] He grew up in Chicago, but enjoyed fishing trips with his father to Canada and the Caribbean. During his senior year at Phillips Exeter Academy, he became interested in science after taking a course on Darwin.[2] In 1970, he graduated from the honors program in Biological Anthropology at Harvard College. Fascinated by wild primates, Seyfarth then applied to work at Cambridge University with Robert Hinde, who had been the thesis advisor of Jane Goodall. Having been accepted by Hinde, Seyfarth then spent two years (1972–1974) in the field studying baboons in Mountain Zebra National Park in South Africa, together with Dorothy Cheney, whom he had recently married.[2] In 1976, Seyfarth received a doctorate from Cambridge.[1]

After a four-year postdoc at Rockefeller University, and another four years at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) as assistant professors, Seyfarth and Cheney moved to the University of Pennsylvania in 1985, where Seyfarth joined the Psychology Department.[3]


Vervet monkey (Kenya)

Seyfarth's research and publications were largely based on longterm field studies of primates in the natural habitat, usually in partnership with Cheney. From 1977 to 1988, Seyfarth and Cheney studied the behavior and ecology of vervet monkeys, in Kenya's Amboseli National Park. This research was summarized in their book How Monkeys See the World (1990).[3] They showed that the alarm calls of vervet monkeys have specific semantic content, so that playing back a recording of one type of call makes monkeys look up in the sky for eagles, while playing back a different call makes monkeys scan the bushes for a snake. According to the Newsletter of the Animal Behavior Society, "These results were the first strong evidence that non-human vertebrates use signals to refer to things external to themselves, and as such revolutionized our understanding of the cognitive side of animal communication."[4]

Female Chacma baboon (Papio ursinus griseipes) with infant (Botswana)

From 1992 to 2008, Seyfarth and Cheney studied vocal communication and social structure of chacma baboons, at the Moremi Game Reserve in Botswana. This research was summarized in their book Baboon Metaphysics (2007).[3][a] Seyfarth and Cheney studied baboon vocalizations, social relationships, and social cognition, with a particular interest in factors that contribute to baboon fitness. Their research showed that baboons are acutely aware of hierarchies and relationships in the group they belong to. Baboon mothers who build good relationships with other adults greatly increase the chance of their offspring's survival. According to Seyfarth, the rules for successful baboons are, "like [those] in a Jane Austen novel, be nice to your relatives and get in with the high-ranking relatives".[6]

The Animal Behavior Society has described Seyfarth and Cheney as "pre-eminent leaders not just in primate communication but in the field of animal communication as a whole."[4]


Seyfarth was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2012[2] and to the National Academy of Science in 2017.[7]

The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences awarded its 2010 Cozzarelli Prize, for the best article in the area of Behavioral and Social Sciences, to a paper about baboon collaboration coauthored by Cheney and Seyfarth.[8]

Representative publicationsEdit

  • Cheney, D.L. & Seyfarth, R.M. (1990) How Monkeys See The World: Inside The Mind of Another Species. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 9780226102467
  • Cheney, D.L. & Seyfarth, R.M. (2007) Baboon Metaphysics: The Evolution of a Social Mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 9780226102443
  • Smuts, B., Cheney, D., Seyfarth, R., Wrangham, R. & Struhsaker, T. (1987) Primate Societies. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 9780226767161


  1. ^ The title is based on a comment by Charles Darwin: "He who understands baboon would do more towards metaphysics than Locke."[5]


  1. ^ a b "March 2018 Curriculum Vitae" (PDF). 2018. Retrieved November 23, 2018.
  2. ^ a b c Viegas, Jennifer (April 10, 2018). "Profile of Dorothy L. Cheney and Robert M. Seyfarth". PNAS. Retrieved November 20, 2018. For their achievements, Cheney and Seyfarth were elected to the American Academy of Arts & Sciences in 1999 and 2012, respectively. They also received honorary doctorates in 2013 from the University of Neuchâtel, Switzerland, and jointly received the American Society of Primatology’s Distinguished Primatologist Award in 2016.
  3. ^ a b c "Robert M. Seyfarth". NAS. Retrieved November 20, 2018. Robert Seyfarth studies the social behavior, vocal communication, and cognition of nonhuman primates in their natural habitat. His goal is to understand the evolution of social complexity, mind, and behavior in monkeys and apes.
  4. ^ a b Searcy, William A (2016). "2016 Career Awards: Distinguished Animal Behaviorist Award". Animal Behavior Society Newsletter. Retrieved November 23, 2018. Cheney and Seyfarth went on to study many other aspects of communication, such as vocal comprehension learning, individual recognition, and deception. As a consequence of this body of work, Cheney and Seyfarth have come to be recognized as among the pre-eminent leaders not just in primate communication but in the field of animal communication as a whole.
  5. ^ Wade, Nicholas (October 9, 2007). "How Baboons Think (Yes, Think)". New York Times. Retrieved November 22, 2018. 'Monkey society is governed by the same two general rules that governed the behavior of women in so many 19th-century novels,' Dr. Cheney and Dr. Seyfarth write. 'Stay loyal to your relatives (though perhaps at a distance, if they are an impediment), but also try to ingratiate yourself with the members of high-ranking families.'
  6. ^ "Baboons Benefit From Strong Social Networks, Expert Says". University of Delaware. May 9, 2009. Retrieved November 22, 2018. Monkey communication expert Robert Seyfarth began his lecture on May 5, the kick-off of the University of Delaware's Year of Darwin celebration, with a true story, documented in 1961, about a female baboon that herded goats in an African village. The baboon knew all of the relationships between the goats so well that at night she would carry a bleating kid from one barn directly to its mother in another barn.
  7. ^ "Seyfarth and Tishkoff elected to National Academy of Sciences". University of Pennsylvania. June 26, 2017. Retrieved November 22, 2018. Seyfarth, a professor of psychology who has retired but remains an active researcher, is a specialist in animal behavior and communication. With his wife, Dorothy Cheney, a professor of biology who was elected to the NAS in 2015 and who also recently retired, Seyfarth has conducted field studies of monkeys and apes in their natural habitats. Focusing on a troop of baboons in the Okavango Delta of Botswana, he has worked to clarify how nonhuman primate relationships, communication, and cognition differ from humans and to explore how and why these animals form close social bonds.
  8. ^ "Drs. Cheney and Seyfarth Awarded the 2010 Cozzarelli Prize". University of Pennsylvania. Retrieved November 21, 2018. Drs. Dorothy Cheney and Robert Seyfarth’s recent PNAS paper - Contingent cooperation between wild female baboons - was awarded the 2010 Cozzarelli prize for the best article in the area of Behavioral and Social Sciences.

External linksEdit