Photo of Karen MccombKaren Mccomb
Emeritus Professor


Much of my research has used playback experiments to address questions about vocal communication and cognitive abilities in mammals in the wild, including work on red deer, African lions and elephants. Recently I have also been using presentations of visual stimuli (as well audio signals) to gain insights into emotional awareness and cognitive abilities in domestic horses and companion animals. With my collaborators, postdocs and PhD students, my work includes the following projects:

1) Age and experience as determinants of acquired knowledge in African elephants: we originally 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 (funded by BBSRC) – a project that has had major scientific and applied significance. We subsequently conducted a comprehensive investigation of the role of age and experience in acquired knowledge and decision-making (funded by The Leverhulme Trust) and also showed that elephants are capable of discriminating between human voices on the basis of ethnicity, sex and age. This work is currently being taken forward with collaborators and has also branched into a study of cultural differences between African elephant populations.

2) Social intelligence and emotional awareness: we have developed novel paradigms to conduct naturalistic experiments on animal cognitive abilities 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 in horses. Recently we adapted this paradigm for work on wild African lions. We have since conducted a major investigation of the role of emotional awareness in social success in horses (funded by The Leverhulme Trust), which led to the first evidence that animals can remember emotional facial expressions that particular people have previously exhibited.

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 and emotional understanding. Recent topics include the role of cat 'slow-blinking' in emotional communication with humans, and empathetic abilities in dogs, cats and horses.

For info on past research see also: Mammal Vocal Communication and Cognition Research Group



Proops L., Grounds K., Smith A.V. & McComb K. (2018) Animals remember previous facial expressions that specific humans have exhibited. Current Biology 28, 1428–1432.e4

Smith A.V., Proops L., Grounds K., Wathan J., Scott S. & McComb K. (2018) Domestic horses (Equus caballus) differentiate negative from positive emotion in human nonverbal vocalisations. Scientific Reports 13052 (2018).

Benson-Amram, S., Gilfillan, G. & McComb, K. (2017)  Numerical assessment in the wild: insights from social carnivores  Philosophical Transactions R. Soc.: Biological Sciences, 373: 20160508.

Wathan, J., Proops, L., Ground, K. & McComb, K. (2016) Horses discriminate between facial expressions of conspecifics. Scientific Reports 6:38322. |

Gilfillan, G, Vitale, J., McNutt, J.W. & McComb, K (2016) Cross-modal individual recognition in wild African Lions. Biology Letters 12: 20160323.

Smith, A., Proops, L., Grounds, K., Wathan, J. & McComb, K. (2016) Functionally relevant responses to human facial expressions of emotion in the domestic horse (Equus caballus). Biology Letters 12: 20150907.

Wathan, J., Burrows, A, Waller, B. & McComb, K. (2015) EquiFACS: The Equine Facial Action Coding System. PLoS ONE 10(8): e0131738.

McComb, K. Shannon, G., Sayialel, K. & Moss, C. (2014) Elephants can determine ethnicity, gender, and age from acoustic cues in human voices Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 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.

Proops, L., McComb, K. & Reby, D. (2009) Cross-modal individual recognition in domestic horses. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 106, 947-951.

McComb, K., Taylor, A.M., Wilson, C. & Charlton, B., (2009) Manipulation by domestic cats: the cry embedded within the purr. Current Biology 19, R507-508.

Reby, D., McComb, K., Cargnelutti, B., Darwin, C. J, Fitch, W. T. & Clutton-Brock, T.H. (2005) Red deer stags use formants as assessment cues during intra-sexual agonistic interactions. Proc. Roy. Soc. Lond. B. 272, 941-947.

Reby, D. & McComb, K. (2003) Anatomical constraints generate honesty: acoustic cues to age and weight in the roars of red deer stags. Animal Behaviour 65, 519-530.

McComb, K., Moss, C., Durant, S., Baker, L. & Sayialel, S. (2001) Matriarchs act as repositories of social knowledge in African elephants. Science 292, 491-494.