• Primatology
  • Animal behaviour
  • Gut microbiome
  • Virology


I am currently working as a PhD student at the Laboratory of Viral Metagenomics at the Rega Institute KU Leuven and the Antwerp ZOO Centre for Research and Conservation (CRC) at Antwerp ZOO and Planckendael ZOO. For my PhD project, I focus on studying the gut virome, the collective name for the viruses in the gut, of zoo-housed and wild bonobos.


Our guts are inhabited by an enormous number of viruses. Although viruses generally have a bad reputation, not all are harmful. For example, the majority of viruses in the gut are bacteriophages, which are viruses that infect and replicate in the bacteria that also reside in the gut. Through this interaction, these phages seem to play an important, and sometimes even positive, role in regulating our health and wellbeing. In humans, the composition of the gut virome is highly specific to the individual and tends to stay relatively stable over time. However, the factors that contribute to this individual variation and stability are not well understood. The goal of my PhD project is to identify these factors in bonobos, one of our closest-living relatives. I will link the gut virome composition of the apes to various factors, such as their diet, social interactions, family bonds, gender, age, and health. To do this, I will analyze fecal samples that are already available for European zoo-housed bonobos and personally collect samples from two wild bonobo groups in the Democratic Republic of Congo. 


I have a bachelor’s degree in biology and a master’s degree in behavioral ecology, both from Utrecht University in the Netherlands. During the first internship of my master’s, I studied the welfare of a group of zoo-housed chimpanzees at a Dutch zoo. I instantly became fascinated by the apes and decided that I wanted to keep studying them. For my second internship, I studied differences in feeding tolerance between zoo-housed bonobos and chimpanzees, here at the CRC. The next step was to see them in the wild.  After university, I spent a year working as a research assistant at the Taï Chimpanzee Project (TCP) in Ivory Coast, studying mother-infant relationships and social learning in wild chimpanzees. Now, I have the opportunity to use my experiences gained from working both with wild and zoo-housed great apes during my doctoral studies.


Staes, N., Vermeulen, K., Van Leeuwen, E. J., Verspeek, J., Torfs, J. R., Eens, M., & Stevens, J. M. (2022). Drivers of dyadic cofeeding tolerance in Pan: a composite measure approach. Biology, 11(5), 713.

Also see ResearchGate