Nicky Staes

Research themes

  • Behavioral genetics
  • Behavioral neuroscience
  • Molecular evolution
  • Primatology


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

Research Interests

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’m interested in figuring out the mechanisms behind this variation, especially the genetic and neural factors, and the interaction between all three components. During my current project I will focus on genes coding for receptors for neuropeptides and neurotransmitters related to the social brain, like oxytocin, vasopressin, dopamine, serotonin, androgens and estrogens. Previous work has focused on genes related to communication and language, like FOXP2 and KIAA0319 and associated differences in neuroanatomy. My work is in collaboration with national and international research groups, zoos and great ape sanctuaries.

Brief Biography

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. This project greatly improved my skills associated with genetics research, especially on wet lab experimental design and the use of whole genome data for behavioral genetics research. In addition, my post-doc focused on investigating differences in neuroanatomy, through which I gained experience with handling brain tissue and stereological and MRI based research. Throughout the course of my projects, I also co-supervised a number of bachelor and master student projects.

Key Publications

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,

Issa, H.A. , Staes, N., Diggs-Galligan, S., Stimpson, C.D., Gendron-Fitzpatrick, A., Taglialatela, J.P., Hof, P.R., Hopkins, W.D. and Sherwood, C.C. (2018) Comparison of bonobo and chimpanzee brain microstructure reveals differences in socio-emotional circuits. Brain Structure and Function, doi: 10.1007/s00429-018-1751-9.

Staes, N., Bradley B.J., Hopkins, W.D. & Sherwood, C.C. (2018) Genetic signatures of socio-communicative abilities in primates. Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences, Vol. 21, pp. 33-38.

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. & 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 & 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. & 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. & Eens, M. (2015) Male chimpanzee sociability is associated with vasopressin but not oxytocin receptor gene variation. Hormones and behavior Vol. 75, pp. 84–90.

Stevens, J.M.G., De Groot, E., Staes, N. (2015) Relationship Quality in Captive Bonobo groups. Behaviour Vol. 152, No 3-4, pp. 259-283.

Staes, N., Stevens, J.M.G., Helsen, P., Hillyer, M., Korody, M. & Eens, M. (2014) Oxytocin and vasopressin receptor gene variation as a proximate base for inter-and intraspecific behavioral differences in bonobos and chimpanzees. PLoS ONE Vol. 9, No 11, pp. e113364.

Authored book chapters

Staes, N., Eens, M., Weiss, A., Stevens, J.M.G. (2017) Bonobo personality: the effects of age and sex and links with behavior and dominance. In: Bonobos: unique in mind brain and behavior. Brian Hare, Shinya Yamamoto (eds.), Chapter 15. Oxford University Press.

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