- Animal behaviour/ethology
As a PhD student at the Behavioral Ecology & Ecophysiology (BECO) research group at the University of Antwerp (UA) and the Center for Research and Conservation (CRC) of ZOO Antwerp and ZOO Planckendael, I study the gut microbiome in bonobos. That is the collective name for the bacteria in the gut, and how their characteristics are linked to health and behaviour.
The gut microbiome plays an important role in regulating the health of both humans and animals, and recent research has even shown that gut bacteria can also direct the behavior of their hosts. Conversely, an animal's social behavior will also determine which bacteria it carries, because animals will exchange bacteria directly with group members through social contact. This bidirectional connection between behavior and the gut microbiome is called the 'gut-brain axis'. Much research into this phenomenon has so far been conducted on mice in the lab, which show only limited social behavior. That is why I am studying how this axis works in bonobos, an animal species with a special social lifestyle. In addition, little is known about the gut microbiome of the bonobo. So, on the one hand I investigate how the bonobo's gut microbiome is structured, for example according to age, gender, and health, and on the other I observe their social behavior, and then link this to the composition of their gut microbiome. To collect all this data, I work closely with various European zoos that keep bonobos, and for the microbial analyses, I work together with the RaesLab (VIB-KU Leuven Center for Microbiology).
All aspects of the living world have always fascinated me. So the choice was quickly made for me to study biology. I completed my bachelor Biology and master Evolution and Behavioral Biology at the University of Antwerp. During my training I was able to work with a wide variety of animal species, including hermit crabs, vervet monkeys, canaries, blue tits, and lizards. I investigated a wide variety of topics, ranging from cognition to reproductive success and aggressive behavior. For my master's thesis, I investigated social tolerance during a food experiment in chimpanzees and bonobos, gaining my first experience in observing bonobos and analyzing social behavior. I can now use this experience during my doctoral research.