Photo of Karen Mccomb

Karen Mccomb
Professor Of Animal Behaviour & Cognition (Psychology)
T: +44 (0)1273 678610


My main research has involved using acoustic analysis and playback experiments to address questions about vocal communication and cognitive abilities in mammals. With my collaborators, postdocs and DPhil students in the Mammal Vocal Communication and Cognition Research Group, I am currently involved in the following projects:

1) Age and experience as determinants of acquired knowledge in African elephants: we have demonstrated that the possession of enhanced discriminatory abilities by the oldest individual in a group of advanced social mammals can influence the social and ecological knowledge of the group as a whole and conducted a comprehensive investigation of the role of age and experience in acquired knowledge and decision-making (funded by The Leverhulme Trust).

2) Social intelligence and emotional awareness in domestic horses: we have developed novel paradigms to examine cross-modal recognition and attribution of attention in this species and were awarded the Cozzarelli Prize for best PNAS paper in Behavioral and Social Sciences in 2008 for our work on cross-modal individual recognition. We are now embarking on an investigation of the role of emotional awareness in social success in horses - a project that has both scientific and applied significance (funded by The Leverhulme Trust).

3) Inter-specific communication: we are expanding research on domestic/companion animals (including domestic cats and dogs as well as horses) as these species can provide useful models both for getting at mammal cognitive abilities and, by virtue of their interactions with humans, exploring interspecific communication. Recent topics include how domestic cats use purring to manipulate their human owners.

4) Acoustic coding in mammal vocalisations: we are particularly interested in elucidating the importance in animal communication of acoustic parameters known to be importance in human speech; study species include red deer, elephants, domestic dogs and cats.

5) The evolution of vocal repertoires: we have conducted comparative analyses to investigate the effects of evolutionary increases in group size on the evolution of vocal repertoires in non-human primates.


McComb, K. Shannon, G., Sayialel, K. & Moss, C. (2014) Elephants can determine ethnicity, gender, and age from acoustic cues in human voices PNAS 111(14), 5433–5438.

Shannon, G., Slotow, R., Durant, S.M., Sayialel, K.N., Poole, J.,  Moss, C. & McComb, K. (2013)  Effects of social disruption in elephants persist decades after culling. Frontiers in Zoology 2013, 10: 62.

Proops, L. & McComb, K. (2012) Cross-modal individual recognition in domestic horses (Equus caballus) extends to familiar humans. Proceedings of the Royal Society B, London 279, 3131-3138.

McComb K., Shannon G., Durant S.M., Sayialel K., Slotow R., Poole J., and Moss C. (2011) Leadership in elephants: the adaptive value of age. Proceedings of the Royal Society B, London 278,3270-3276.