Nicky Staes


  • Primatology 
  • Behavioral (epi)genetics 
  • Behavioral neuroscience 
  • Molecular evolution 
  • Microbiome  


I am a post-doctoral researcher at the Centre for Research and Conservation (CRC) of Antwerp ZOO and Planckendael ZOO. 


My research focuses on identifying the proximate origins of behavioral variation between and within great ape species. Great apes, much like humans, show remarkable variation in levels of social behavior, communication, and personality. I am interested in figuring out the mechanisms regulating this variation between and across species, with a special focus on the functioning of neuropeptide and neurotransmitters that affect the social brain, like serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin, vasopressin, androgens, and estrogens. I study how host (epi)genetic variation impacts these systems, but also how the entire collection of microbial organisms an individual carries (or the microbiome) contributes to this equation. I work in close collaboration with national and international research groups, zoos, and great ape sanctuaries. 


I obtained a master's in Biology (Evolution and Behaviour) and a PhD in Primate Behavioural Genetics at the University of Antwerp. My PhD focused on oxytocin and vasopressin receptor gene variation underlying individual variation in personality traits between bonobos and chimpanzees. During this interdisciplinary project I merged approaches used in 3 different research fields: behavioral ecology, psychology and quantitative genetics. I then completed a three-year post-doc at the George Washington University in Washington DC, USA where I was part of the Primate Genomics Lab and the Laboratory for Evolutionary Neuroscience. During this post-doc I continued to focus on behavioral genetics, but targeted a broader set of cognitive traits in great apes, such as receptive joint attention, intelligence and communication. During the course of this project my analytical focus also shifted towards the use of whole genome data and epigenetic analysis for use in behavioral genetics research, and incorporation of neuroanatomical data through stereological and MRI based research. Currently I am continuing this research as a postdoctoral researcher at the Centre for Research and Conservation (CRC) of Antwerp ZOO and Planckendael ZOO working primarily with bonobos and chimpanzees. Since 2020 my research scope widened towards investigation of the gut-brain axis, by including the impact of the gut microbiome on primate social brain functioning.  


Staes, N., Guevara, E.E., Hopkins, W.D., Shapiro, S.J., Eens, M., Sherwood, C.C., Bradley, B.J. (2022) The role of serotonergic gene methylation in regulating anxiety-related personality traits in chimpanzees. Biology, Vol. 11, 1673. 

Staes, N., Guevara, E.E.,  Helsen, P. Eens, M., and Stevens, J.M.G. (2021) The Pan social brain: An evolutionary history of neurochemical receptor genes and their potential impact on sociocognitive differences. Journal of human evolution, Vol. 152, 102949 

van Leeuwen, E.J.C., Staes, N., Verspeek, J., Hoppitt, W.J.E., and Stevens, J.M.G. (2020) Network-based diffusion analysis reveals social culture in bonobos. Current Biology, Vol. 30, nr R237-R262 

Staes, N., Sherwood, C.C., Freeman, H., Brosnan, S., Hopkins, W.D., and Bradley, B.J. (2019) Serotonin receptor 1A (5-HTR1A) variation is associated with anxiety and agonistic behavior in captive chimpanzees. Molecular Biology and Evolution, Vol. 36, nr 7, pp. 1418-1429 

Staes, N., Smaers J., Kunkle, A.E., Hopkins, W.D., Bradley, B.J., and Sherwood, C.C. (2018) Evolutionary divergence of neuroanatomical organization and related genes in chimpanzees and bonobos. Cortex, 

Staes, N., Sherwood, C.C., Wright, K., De Manuel, M., Guevara, E.E., Ely, J.J., Marques-Bonet, T., Krützen, M., Massiah, M., Hopkins W.D., and Bradley B.J. (2017) FOXP2 variation in great ape populations offers insight into the evolution of communication skills. Scientific Reports, Vol. 7, nr 16866 

Staes, N., Eens, M., Weiss, A., P. Helsen, M. Korody and Stevens, J.M.G. (2016) Heritability of personality traits and the relationship with vasopressin receptor gene 1a variation in bonobos. Scientific Reports, Vol. 6, nr 38193. 

Weiss, A.*, Staes, N.*, Pereboom, J.J.M., Inoue-Murayama, M., Stevens, J.M.G. and Eens, M. (2015) Personality in bonobos. Psychological Science, Vol. 26, No. 9, pp. 1430-1439. * shared first authorship 

Staes, N., Koski, S., Stevens, J.M.G., Helsen, P., Erik, F. and Eens, M. (2015) Male chimpanzee sociability is associated with vasopressin but not oxytocin receptor gene variation. Hormones and behavior Vol. 75, pp. 84–90.